The situation of the Rohingya people in Burma remains dire. Even as President Thein Sein has launched political and economic reforms to move the country away from its authoritarian past, and even as Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s champion of human rights, has been freed from house arrest and is now in the middle of an historic, emotional, and heavily publicized visit to the United States, there is still a threat of genocide for the Rohingya.
With this in mind, Christine Lim traveled to the campus of Columbia University on Sept. 14 for a discussion titled “Burma in Transition: Minorities, Human Rights, and Democratic Process.” Speakers for the event were Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Prize laureate in Economics; Wakar Uddin, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union; T. Kumar, director of international advocacy for Amnesty International USA; and Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
Opening the event was Wakar Uddin of the Arakan Rohingya Union and the Burmese Rohingya Association of North America. His graphic, eye-opening slideshow relayed the horrific facts of everyday life for the 800,000 Rohingya Muslims who live in Burma as a stateless minority with virtually no rights, having been stripped of their citizenship in 1982.
Even those who have lived in the country for generations are denied citizenship and birth certificates, Uddin said. They need permission from the state to reproduce at more than the replacement rate, marry, or travel outside their villages. Illiteracy is incredibly high among Rohingya, and fewer than 1 percent of them graduate from high school. Uddin described land confiscation, arbitrary arrests, and forced labor as rampant, and incidents of armed child soldiers waiting outside mosques to ambush attendees. He also said that the police routinely engaged in a practice officially known as “population reduction monitoring,” illustrating the sinister-sounding policy with a photograph of an old man shot to death.
Uddin declared that the Burmese government’s “massive ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, carried out with the help of the military, amounted to genocide and that full citizenship for the Rohingya was the only viable long-term solution. To this end, Uddin called on the audience to pressure the international community not only to supply aid but also to press Rangoon to repeal the 1982 citizenship law. He also urged the current Burmese government to grant the right to return to the estimated 1.5 million Rohingya who have fled to neighboring countries.
Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch said she recently visited Burma and did see some unexpectedly good changes in limited areas such as Rangoon, but that in Arakan the situation had only gotten worse. She expressed hope that Aung San Suu Kyi would take a more definite stand on the Rohingya issue during her tour of the United States.
Although Suu Kyi has shown concern over other Burmese social issues, such as the continued recruitment of child soldiers and prostitutes, she has remained silent regarding the treatment of the Rohingya minority in Burma. When asked during her June visit to Oslo, where she received the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991, whether she thought Rohingyas should be considered citizens, Suu Kyi replied, “I do not know.”
Pearson pointed out that President Thein Sein and the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, agreed on the confinement of Rohingyas in refugee camps and warned listeners not to be misled by the romantic idea of “cease-fire capitalism,” borne of the highly publicized peace agreements, signed but not acted upon, between Rangoon and military forces representing ethnic minorities. She said it was dangerous that civil society had been left out of discussions about the distribution of limited natural resources, since ethnic minorities were likely to lose out as a result. Pearson also stated that military reform would be necessary for positive steps toward democracy and human rights, because the military was currently “not on board” with those goals.
T. Kumar, of Amnesty International USA, spoke in greater detail about the difficulties of attending school, finding a job (as opposed to forced labor), or seeking medical care without citizenship and the right to travel freely.
Amartya Sen, the best-known of the speakers, urged listeners to keep a sense of balance with regard to the plight of the Rohingya, to avoid being either too discouraged or complacent about acting to improve matters where possible. He characterized the issue as a modern problem not only of human rights but of citizenship, saying what was necessary was a non-sectarian approach that truly sought to understand the tensions between ethnicities, as the problem was a complex one, stretching across religious, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries, and could not be solved by what he called a kind of wishy-washy “secularism” that insists upon giving the same five minutes of recitation from various holy texts before every communal gathering.
In a speech at the Asia Society on Sept. 18 in Washington, DC, Suu Kyi touched upon the conflict in Rakhine state, though she limited her discussion to abstract principles rather than concrete policies, such as the granting of citizenship, framing them as the responsibility of the government, as opposed to that of her party, the NLD:
“The government has formed a commission to look into the situation in the Rakhine. The NLD [. . .] want to give the government all the opportunities it needs to diffuse the situation there and to bring about a peaceful settlement. We do not want to criticize the government just for the sake of making political capital. We want to help the government, in any way possible, to bring about peace and harmony in the Rakhine state. Whatever help is asked from us, we are prepared to give—if it is within our ability to do so. But it is not for us—we are not in a position to decide what we do and how we operate—because we are not the government. I think this has to be understood by those who wish the NLD to do more. What we can do is to declare our principles and our preparedness to help in every way we can. [. . .] But I am not going to talk about the Rakhine issue in greater detail now.”