Friday, June 6, 2014

Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya: an “affront to civilization”

The New York Times has been providing fairly steady reporting on the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya in Myanmar (see Jane Perlez’ May 2 article, “Death Stalks Muslims as Myanmar Cuts Off Aid” which provides another harrowing overview of the continued persecution of this stateless minority.
But as with the poorest of the poor in Aceh province, the Rohingya’s plight has not drawn sufficient global attention for Myanmar to change its draconian policies towards this group.
Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country, keeps many Rohingya Muslims in quasi-concentration camps.  Credit Video Frame Grab by Adam Ellick/The New York Times

Ever since 2009 when I traveled with JMD to Aceh Timur’s coast to set up a makeshift camp for the over 200 Rohingya who had landed on Aceh’s shore (several hundred more had reached—and been turned away from—Thailand and Bangladesh; Indonesia, especially Aceh, was one of the few places to welcome them) I have been urging US and international bodies to address what is basically genocide by default.  But since the world wants to praise Myanmar for the strides it has taken since becoming a democracy, it has pretty much given it a pass for its continued human rights violations of Rohingya, elaborately and chillingly spelled out in a 78-page 2014 report called Policies of Persecution by the group Fortify Rights (  I hope you click on the link (in the” Rohingya News” section on the right hand column of this blog) and read this document.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote both a follow-up on this story and an op-ed, which urged President Obama to “find his voice” and speak out against suffering that is  deliberately inflicted as government policy, “which he calls an “affront to civilization.”

I do not know if the recent increase in articles concerning the Rohingya will effect any positive or immediate change in Myanmar’s current policy.  As I have noted before, in letters to my Senators, Congresspeople, and Secretary of State, human rights violations are measured, by my government anyway, based on the amount of economic investment we have with the particular violator. 

Little current economic or political benefit  (Ukraine) = large scale suffering and subjugation must be stopped!
Lots of economic, trade, and geopolitical positioning at stake (Aceh, Myanmar) = oh, it’s not that bad.  Those Rohingya—what a bunch of complainers!

Let me tell you, I would pack up JMD’s  staff today and head for one of those camps, but we are not allowed in there to help.

The persecution of the Rohingya is nothing less than institutionalized torture.  Countries, including the US, treat their marginalized citizens like crap all the time.  But as Kristoff points out, this in a far more insidious injustice which, if we sit idly by because Myanmar is getting “some” of its democracy right, is about as big a crime against humanity as we can commit. He writes, “I do wonder about the fairness of highlighting crimes against humanity in one state of the country, when there’s great progress in the country economically, politically and socially. Yet these are the kinds of crimes that merit priority; they shouldn’t be excused because there’s progress in other areas.”

Kids are not allowed to go to school in the camps; some older children try to set up “schools” for the younger ones.

In his May 31 article “With the Rohingya in Myanmar,” Kristoff reports that no aid workers are allowed in the Rohingya camps, and Rohingya are not allowed to leave, except with special “passes:”

Since violent clashes in 2012, the Rohingya have been confined to quasi-concentration camps or to their villages, denied ready access to markets, jobs or hospitals. This spring, the authorities expelled the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which had been providing the Rohingya with medical care. Orchestrated violent attacks on the offices of humanitarian organizations drove many aid workers away as well and seemed intended in part to remove foreign witnesses to this ethnic cleansing.

In one internment camp Kristoff and his intern found “dangerous tension and some malnutrition, but by far the biggest problem is medical care. More than one million Rohingya are getting little if any health care, and some are dying as a result.”
Hussein says his arm was broken by a Buddhist mob two years ago. It is now useless because he never saw a doctor to re-set the bone. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times


Kristoff’s  same-day follow-up article is re-printed below.


Obama Success, or Global Shame?

President Obama, in his address a few days ago at the United States Military Academy at West Point, cited Myanmar as one of the administration’s diplomatic successes. It’s true that Myanmar has made tremendous political gains in recent years — the permission I received to report here is testimony to that — and there is much to admire about the country’s progress toward democracy. But let’s not make excuses for a 21st-century apartheid worse even than the system once enforced in South Africa. As Human Rights Watch has documented, what has unfolded here constitutes ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Likewise, another watchdog group, Fortify Rights, cites internal Myanmar documents and argues that a pattern over the years of killings, torture, rape and other repression amounts to crimes against humanity under international law.
Weighed against such abuses, Obama’s criticisms of Myanmar have been pathetically timid. Because he is hugely admired here, Obama has political capital to pressure the government that he has not used. Indeed, the United States and other countries have often even avoided the word Rohingya, effectively joining in the denial of a people’s identity. That’s a failed policy, for this deference has led Myanmar to tighten the screws on the Rohingya this year.
The Rohingya gave us the names of some Buddhists who they said had been leaders in slaughtering Muslims, and we visited one of these men they named. A 53-year-old farmer, he denied any involvement in the violence, but it was an awkward, tense conversation, partly because the Buddhists are angry at aid groups and journalists for (as they see it) siding with Muslims. Their narrative is that Muslim terrorists from Bangladesh are invading the country, overpopulating so as to marginalize the Buddhists, and then being coddled by foreigners.
The extremists back up this absurd narrative with intimidation. My Buddhist driver, who sported a nationalist tattoo, was willing to take me into Rohingya camps and villages and had no fear of assault by Muslims. But he was terrified of going to some hard-line Buddhist areas, for fear that we would be assaulted as Muslim sympathizers.
When the authorities found out that we were wandering in the hills, they sent a team of police officers armed with automatic weapons to find and “protect” us. They need to start protecting the Rohingya as well.
Look, I’ve seen greater malnutrition and disease over the years — in South Sudan, Niger, Congo, Guinea — but what’s odious about what is happening here is that the suffering is deliberately inflicted as government policy. The authorities are stripping members of one ethnic group of citizenship, then interning them in camps or villages, depriving them of education, refusing them medical care — and even expelling and even expelling humanitarians who seek to save their lives. 
That’s not a tragedy for one obscure ethnic group; it’s an affront to civilization. Please, President Obama, find your voice.

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