On August 25, 2017, Rohingya rebels from the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked Myanmar security forces, killing 12 and giving the government an excuse to unleash a wildly-disproportionate counter-offensive against all Rohingya.
In response to the militant attacks military forces launched “clearance operations” that has left over a thousand, perhaps thousands, dead.
Rohingya villages have been torched, peoples brutalized, raped and tortured, and over 400,000 Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government calls Bengalis, have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
Earlier this month UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya “… seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
On one hand this is yet another story, another chapter, about man’s inhumanity to man – a story repeatedly retold – about powerful forces, often allied with governing elites, who want to purify a perceived national identity.
A story told all too often; the story of Tutsis vs Hutus, of Turks vs Kurds, of Pashtun vs Hazara, of Muslim Brotherhood supporters targeting Copts.
Today, sadly, it’s another of those stories – a story of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and genocide against a people called Rohingya, a largely Muslim minority group, mostly resident in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, who trace their existence in Myanmar back for generations.
In recent decades, despite their historic presence, they’ve faced increasing discrimination. Since 1962 they’ve been progressively stripped of political and civil rights, including citizenship rights, and their freedom of movement, access to education, to medical care and to other basic services is severely restricted or outright denied.
In 1982 the government granted citizenship to most ethnic minority groups but denied citizenship to Rohingya. A government two-child only policy applies only to Rohingya families – but those two children will never be allowed to be citizens.
Today, in Myanmar, they don’t exist.
To the ultra-nationalist Buddhist ruling forces there are no Myanmar Rohingya; indeed, “Rohingya” is not part of the national lexicon.
There are no Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh; no Rohingya being denied access to international aid services by nationalist mobs; no people being raped, killed, tortured and villages burned by military forces.
According to State Counsellor Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – who herself endured years of house arrest under a military junta during her courageous struggle to bring civilian rule to Myanmar – the problems in her country are being amplified by “fake news” and “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”
Perhaps, from Myanmar’s perspective, she’s right: If the Rohingya don’t exist then atrocities can’t be happening.
Frustrated and disappointed by Suu Kyi’s silence and inaction fellow Laureates have begun to speak out.
Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 85 and combatting prostate cancer, called on Suu Kyi to speak out:
“I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.”
“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep … We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people,” he wrote. “We pray for you to intervene.”
Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize, used Twitter to call out Suu Kyi “… Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.”
Nobel Laureate and spiritual leader Dalai Lama called on Myanmar to follow the example of the Buddha and come to the aid of the Rohingya.
And Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Catholic archbishop of Yangon, says, “The world looks at Aung San Suu Kyi with the same lens with which it looked at her during her struggle for democracy … Now she is part of the government, she is a political leader. Surely she should have spoken out.”
Thankfully, the Trump administration has spoken. According to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, President Trump has asked his national security advisers to find ways to help end the violence and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
“The president is very concerned about Burma [Myanmar],” she said. “Everybody is trying to figure out who can move the officials in Burma. You have almost half a million people who have left, and the tragedies and the abuse that’s happened there is something not a lot of us can stomach.”
She’s right – but not right enough.
The problem is bigger than Myanmar.
Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, appeared to address such problems as he was speaking out on the condition of Rohingya: “The global Islamophobia and the recent discrimination of Muslims with impunity by powerful nations are enkindling fires of hatred in many countries against Islam. I am shocked at the nationalistic feeling provoked and spread by handful of men with social media.”
I think Cardinal Bo is right. I think he’s right to caution us about feeding fires of hatred and nationalism based on religious and ethnic identity.
I think that if a Cardinal from the Archdiocese of Yangon can discern, with clarity, that the provocations and incitements of powerful nations can inspire and embolden others with similar prejudices then we must all be attentive – and concerned.
Because tomorrow they could come for you – or you.