Burma's Rohingya Muslims have been described as the most friendless people in the world. But for the past four years they had one powerful friend — and he lived in the White House.
President Obama, who gave a teary farewell to the nation on Tuesday in Chicago, spoke up often for the persecuted Muslim minority. His vocal support followed Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to the Southeast Asian country in 2011, the first by a secretary of state in 50 years, and his own trip a year later, the first by a sitting U.S. president.
The government in this Buddhist-majority nation does not recognize the very term “Rohingya,” and it sees them as newcomers from Bangladesh rather than natives.
But during that first appearance in 2012, Obama used the word “Rohingya” while delivering a speech at Rangoon University, saying members of the minority group “hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”
He used the word again during a visit in 2014, and in 2015 he hosted prominent Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu at the White House for dinner. Many believe he helped raised the international profile of the Rohingya cause.
Europe-based activist Nay San Lwin, who communicates with a network of activists on the ground in Burma, wrote in an email that “Obama's speeches are historic for Rohingya. He highlighted about the dignity of our people while the Burmese do not consider us human beings.”
Since 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have lived in camps for internally displaced people in the state of Rakhine after religiously motivated violence there killed hundreds of people.
The community's plight got worse after a group of Rohingya militants attacked police outposts in the north of the state last year, killing nine people and setting off a military crackdown that Amnesty International said could amount to crimes against humanity. The government has denied allegations its soldiers committed rape and arson, but there is mounting evidence to the contrary.
With Obama departing, the Rohingya fear losing an influential ally in Washington, and are concerned by President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks. Hard-liners in Burma celebrated Trump's election victory, and the country seems to be a blank spot on the president-elect's agenda.
Unlike other countries in the neighborhood, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and India, Trump appears to have few strong ties or business interests in Burma. He has also not taken much of a public stance on the country's concerns.
Andrew Selth, a Burma expert who teaches at Griffith University in Australia and Australian National University, wrote in a recent column that one of Trump’s only nods to the country was a tweet expressing his “thoughts and prayers” to victims of an earthquake in Burma back in August.
“That gesture aside, he has shown no interest in the country, nor demonstrated any knowledge of its complex problems,” Selth wrote.
He added there could be “greater distance between the White House and the Rohingya cause” if links between the attacks against police in October and outside extremist support are better established.
Optimists point to the fact that there has been bipartisan support for Burma as it emerges from five decades of military rule. But support for the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic activist-turned-politician who led her party of dissidents to election victory in 2015, is not the same thing as support for the Rohingya, who feel abandoned by her.
Obama illustrated this tension himself when he lifted the remaining U.S. sanctions on Burma last year to bolster Suu Kyi's new government, which officially came to power in April 2016. The move dismayed activists who saw sanctions as crucial leverage against the military's actions in places like Rakhine and other conflict zones.
Nay San Lwin said that even though activists in Rakhine “all think Trump won't speak for Rohingya like Obama,” he will wait and see.
In any case, he added, the Rohingya need more than words now.