Burma’s Human Rights Nightmare

Stateless, landless, and homeless, Burma’s minority Rohingya people have been called the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described the atrocities committed against the Russian people by German soldiers during the Second World War as a “crime without a name.” But would Churchill use the same words if he lived long enough to witness the numerous “killing fields” of the second half of the 20th century?

True, these are not the total state wars that consumed the first half of the 20th century.  Still, the unspeakable crimes endured by our elders are still present today in one form or another. 

A case in point is the continuing suffering of the Rohingya community in western Burma. The United Nations has in fact called them the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia because no country is willing to grant them citizenship. In fact, Burma refuses to recognize the Rohingya ethnic community even though the latter have been living in the country for many decades. 

Using Churchill’s words to describe the plight of the Rohingya, one might say that we too are in the presence of a crime; but it’s a crime with many names. There are crimes against humanity; and there are crimes against Rohingya. Already stateless, landless, and homeless, Rohingya people are faced with daily doses of various forms of discrimination. As unwanted residents, they are deprived of basic human rights and welfare services. Regarded as outsiders, they are collectively accused of inciting violence in Burma every time a member of their community is found guilty of committing a crime. 

But the Rohingya are not merely battling the racism of the junta-backed ruling party in Burma. Unfortunately, they are also victimized by the supposedly pro-democracy opposition parties, many of whom have echoed the government’s position that the Rohingya are illegal residents of Burma.

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Further inflaming the tension and hatred in Burma is the irresponsible action of some groups which have posted false images on the internet to draw attention to the suffering of the Rohingya. Naturally, it angered many Burmese who suspect that Western groups and foreign governments are conspiring to isolate Burma in the international community. 

Foreign groups may have exploited Rohingya issue to further their sinister agenda, but this doesn’t excuse the continued marginalization of the ethnic group. Nor does it invalidate human rights groups’ criticism about the deteriorating situation in Rohingya refugee camps. It also doesn’t make the global petition to support the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds any less valid.

It isn’t helpful to perpetuate the Rohingya-Rakhine dichotomy. A stand in favor of Rohingya doesn’t mean we are condemning the Rakhine. Both groups are victims of violence who must learn to coexist peacefully.

The first step towards that goal would be the Burmese government recognizing that its policy towards the Rohingya is causing further division and conflict in the country. It could also ensure that the often invoked “rule of law” should apply to the parties perpetrating the horrendous crimes against the group. If Burma is hesitant to listen to Western institutions about the need to rethink its policies concerning the Rohingya, then maybe the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can intervene by listing the Rohingya issue as part of its agenda in the next caucus of the regional grouping.