The official American institution memorializing the Holocaust sounded the alarm this week on the threat of a genocide facing the beleaguered Rohingya of Burma, one of the world's most neglected communities. A report published by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a wing of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, charted the persecution, violence and systematic discrimination endured by this Muslim minority, and warned that it was a "population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide."
The plight of the 1.3 million Rohingya is well documented, if not particularly well known. The majority live in Burma's Rakhine state, on the western border with Bangladesh and India. Even though many Rohingya can trace their roots in Burma, also known as Myanmar, through a number of generations, they are not recognized as citizens of the Burmese state, which has insisted on classing them as "Bengali" — a designation that suggests that they may be interlopers from across the border. They, therefore, struggle for access to basic state services in what is already an underdeveloped, fractious, multi-ethnic nation.
The partial democratization that has taken place in Burma, once dominated by a military junta, has not helped the Rohingya. In recent years, the climate of hostility has, as the report puts it, led to the Rohingya being "subject to dehumanization through rampant hate speech, the denial of citizenship, and restrictions on freedom of movement, in addition to a host of other human rights violations."
Ethnic violence in 2012 led to tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to miserable, squalid camps; countless others have chosen to leave the country altogether, sometimes at hideous cost. The waters of the Andaman Sea and the jungles of Thailand still hold the unclaimed corpses of many Rohingya, whose vulnerable position on the margins of the Burmese state have made them prey to human traffickers.
The Simon-Skjodt Center's report was partly based on a fact-finding mission to Rakhine state in March, in which the researchers found what they deemed were "early warning signs of genocide." Earlier research and advocacy conducted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum has included studies on the violence in Sudan's Darfur region, as well as the Central African Republic.
"We’re very cautious when we invoke the term 'genocide,' knowing that it can be quite polarizing and sometimes even unhelpful," says Cameron Hudson, the center's director. "But there is a combination of factors — many of which you saw in 1930s Germany and 1990s Rwanda — that are quite concerning."
To be sure, slaughter and upheaval of the magnitude referenced by Hudson are so far not in the cards in Burma, but it is his institution's mandate to spot the roots of potential mass violence.
"What we're talking about here is the targeting of a specific group, based on their religious and national identity," he says. For the Rohingya, their continued denial of citizenship rights — a U.N. General Assembly resolution passed in December that demanded that Burma recognize the Rohingya was dismissed with derision by the Burmese government — has been reinforced by a growing Buddhist nationalism among some Burmese.
The report found the Rohingya to be the subject of "rampant hate speech" in Burma. It also documented widespread impunity for those carrying out violence against the minority, as well as worrying trends of local and national discrimination against the Rohingya, including restrictions on their movement and probably their ability to vote in elections expected later this year.
No wonder the United Nations recently described the Rohingya "as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world."
Questions that Hudson and his colleagues asked of local government authorities about the group's treatment were met with responses that "were not at all satisfactory," he says.
What has disappointed many outside observers, including Hudson and his team, has been the relative indifference of Burma's pro-democracy camp to the plight of the Rohingya. This includes Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who's now a prominent opposition politician.
"One of the things that concerned us the most was that this pro-democracy segment has been largely silent on the issue," Hudson says. The Rohingya's desperate lack of wider support within the country leaves them particularly exposed in the febrile, fractious Burmese political scene.
"This [upcoming] election could be the flash point that sets off an episode of mass killing," Hudson warns.
You can read the full report here.
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