The Plight of Burma’s Rohingya

On November 3, 2013, a boat carrying at least 70 Rohingya men, women, and children sank off of the coast of Burma. The boat was allegedly headed for Bangladesh, where these displaced Rohingyas sought safety from the ongoing persecution and violence in Burma. Dozens remain missing, while the very few survivors were returned to the same camps they had risked their lives to flee. The danger and uncertainty that the Rohingyas are willing to endure to escape Burma highlight their level of desperation.

On November 4, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum held an event in partnership with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to draw attention to the unacceptable treatment of the Rohingya population in Burma and prevent future abuses against them. Since June 2012, there have been spikes of violence against Rohingya communities leaving many dead and about 140,000 people displaced from their homes. The event’s panelists included Dr. Holly Atkinson, MD, volunteer medical advisor and past president of PHR, and director of the Human Rights Program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai University; Maung Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization of the UK (BROUK); and Greg Constantine, photographer and author of Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya. The panel also marked the opening night of a week-long exhibition documenting Constantine’s seven years of covering the Rohingya population, with his photos projected onto the walls of the Holocaust Museum.

The panel emphasized how recent changes to the political landscape in Burma have led to an increase in violence against the Rohingyas. With the spread of militant Buddhist groups, and highly accessible public hate speech and propaganda, the Rohingyas are fighting growing animosity in the community.

The speakers shared stories of the discrimination and bouts of violence that the Rohingya have endured for decades. Tun Khin discussed the trajectory of government involvement in the persecution of the Rohingya people, from the purposeful exclusion of the Rohingya from political participation to the denial of citizenship and access to basic services. Tun Khin also offered both anecdotal and formal evidence of the severe limitations that Rohingyas face regarding marriage and access to health care and education, as well as restrictions on their freedom of movement. The deteriorating relationship between the Rohingyas and the Rakhine people, largely due to an increase in hate speech throughout the country, was also highlighted.

Dr. Atkinson described experiences from her recent trip to Burma after an outbreak of violence in Meiktila. She described both the brutality and nature of the violence in Meiktila and the role of the police in contributing to and failing to stop the violence. Constantine and Dr. Atkinson both noted the threat of violence from not only extremists, but also the security forces, both of which – as the majority – often share the same biases against the Rohingya.

PHR has been documenting human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma for the past ten years and has long called for accountability, including traditional prosecutions as well as genuine efforts to both reconcile distrust between the communities and provide reparations for those impacted by violence. The international community, including the United States, should press Burmese leaders to revise their citizenship law so that it does not exclude people on the basis of ethnicity, thoroughly investigate and prosecute those responsible for acts of violence, and allow humanitarian assistance to reach displaced Rohingyas and all others in need.

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