What You Didn’t See in the News: Myanmar

Last Friday, Hamilton College hosted the Model African Union Conference for the New York Six. The keynote speaker was Adama Dieng, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Genocide Prevention. Mr. Dieng spoke about Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia. Myanmar (formerly Burma) has a population of roughly 53 million people. While its major religion is Buddhism, there are 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar, according to a recent article posted by the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera. According to the article, the Rohingya are a Muslim-majority ethnic group who have lived in Myanmar for centuries. During his keynote address, Dieng spoke of the mass persecution of the Rohingya peoples . His message was simple: action must be taken. The world cannot stand by and let Myanmar government carry out these atrocities on its own people.

After Myanmar gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, the new country enacted a “Union Citizenship Act” outlining which ethnicities could gain citizenship, due to its high level of diversity. In a 2015 report, the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School found that the Rohingya were not included in the ethnic groups eligible for citizenship. However, because the act allowed people whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards, many Rohingya were able to gain such official identification from the government — and even citizenship. During this period, the Rohingya led successful and peaceful lives, and some even served in parliament. However, everything changed with a military coup in 1962. Now they were allowed only limited job and educational opportunities, and received only “foreign identity cards.” In 1982, the Rohingya officially became de-recognized as an ethnic group. As a result, everything from education to health care, from marriage to travel, was restricted for them. To this day, most of the government in Myanmar considers the word “Rohingya” to be a recent political invention, and instead believes this people are Bengalis from nearby Bangladesh. Since the 1970s, the government has been running “crackdowns against violence” targeted at Rohingya neighborhoods and areas. Government troops have been accused of killing, raping, and committing arson against the Rohingya during these so-called crackdowns. Additionally, residents of Rohingya areas, as well as others in them at the time, have reported government officials killing unarmed Rohingya men, women, and even small children. As a result, since the 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar. In the past five years alone, approximately 168,000 have fled Myanmar.

The Rohingya face an incredibly long, violent, and dangerous route when attempting to escape to neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. However, the latter country’s government believes that many of the Rohingya currently living in Bangladesh “illegally infiltrated” the country. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and unofficial leader of Myanmar, won the Nobel Peace Prize for being a democratic and human-rights leader in the country. However, she refuses to speak about the Rohingya in her country and turns her back when her soldiers slaughter innocent citizens from this minority. She ultimately denies an ongoing violation of human rights in Myanmar. For the innocent Rohingya men and women, there is no place to call home. They are rejected by their own government and have been left with no other place to go.

I was fortunate to be able to attend the post-Common Ground discussion with Karl Rove and David Axelrod. I had time for one question with both of these men, and I asked them the same question: “What do you think about American, or overall international, intervention in Myanmar?” Both of them had the same response: “We should absolutely bring American and international presence into Myanmar.” Mr. Dieng warned those listening on Friday night of the dangers of another potential Rwanda. With the overall sentiment from many on the Right about accepting refugees (not migrants, but refugees) who are being forced to flee their own countries, Myanmar is being swept under the rug even more than it has been over the past 50 years. The world is watching idly as thousands are being forced to flee in fear for their lives. Let’s not wait another three years and then have our president issue an apology for our lack of intervention. Let’s do what is right, and help the innocent Rohingya of Myanmar.