This past week, Aung San Suu Kyi, an enduring symbol of the struggle for democracy in Burma and now State Counsellor of Myanmar, made an official visit to Thailand, where she was greeted by thousands of her compatriots living and working in Bangkok. Many of them belong to the Rohingya ethnic group, whom The Economist designated the “most persecuted people on the planet.” At Suu Kyi’s public appearance in a metro Bangkok fishing center, an overflow crowd of Burmese migrants rushed the police, with the Rohingya among them pleading for her to “have sympathy for us.” As illustrated by the troubled history of this persecuted group, there has been nearly a complete absence of sympathy from officials in Burma and hardly any more among the nations to which the Rohingya have fled, Thailand included.
Today, well over a million Rohingya live in the Rakhine state of western Burma. Their historical origins, however, are disputed. Many scholars, and the Rohingya themselves, assert that they are the indigenous occupants. Others point to Bangladesh as the group’s homeland, a theory strengthened by two features of their culture: (1) the Rohingya and Bengalis are predominantly Muslim and (2) both speak closely related languages. Regardless of how long they have resided within Rakhine, the Rohingya remain a distinct minority within a majority Buddhist nation that speaks a markedly disparate national language.
The government has deprived them of any formal status, facilitating the constant threat of persecution and violence from paramilitaries who receive support from the population and compliance from the military. In 2012, a particularly devastating wave of anti-Rohingya attacks ensued. Perpetrators razed entire neighborhoods, slaughtered the residents, and displaced half the country’s Rohingya population. Many attempt to flee to nearby nations, often with the most precarious of transport and under the auspices of human traffickers. Of the many perils that await those that pursue the maritime voyage out of Burma, Thailand’s navy has become particularly troublesome. Journalists have uncovered Thai officers intercepting refugees and transferring the men into slave labor and the women into prostitution.
For the fortunate ones who survive the journey, their destinations are limited. The Muslim-majority nations of Malaysia and Indonesia pay lip service to the plight of these fellow Muslims, but stop short of granting the Rohingya arrivals permanent asylum or refuge. On the overland route, options are few and far between. Bangladesh is struggling with its own overpopulation and crippling poverty, and argues it is in no position to handle an influx of refugees.
For those who stay behind in Burma, the future is increasingly uncertain. Many are forced into living situations reminiscent of internment camps, where basic resources are critically scarce. International aid organizations attempting to alleviate the community’s suffering are hindered at every step of the way by security forces. The government has even expelled aid workers and journalists from Rakhine. Since ethnic Burmese Buddhists dominate Burma’s politics and media, there is little impetus from within borders to report on this humanitarian crisis.
Possibly most disheartening of all is the pro-democracy movement’s neglect of the Rohingya. Even human rights champion Suu Kyi has insisted foreigners
“overexaggerate” the Rohingya’s situation. Suu Kyi’s spokesman has gone so far as to demand the United States do “not refer to the Rohingya people by that name because it does not recognize them as citizens.” These statements have strengthened suspicions that she harbors personal prejudices, which were initially raised after some controversial remarks made during a BBC interview this spring. Other self-described proponents of pluralistic democracy in Burma have also revealed racist views regarding the Rohingya. In the case of local elections, Rakhine state has begun electing officials with the most vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Suu Kyi has, in fact, consistently championed a message of peace among Burma’s many ethnic minorities (which number over 135). However, it has been made clear this good will does not extend to the Rohingya. Rather, the groups with armed independence movements (e.g. the Kachin, Karen, and Shan peoples) have received nearly all of the government’s diplomatic attention.
Burma’s transition to democracy and subsequent political and economic opening have arguably exacerbated conditions for the Rohingya. High-income nations with influence in the region, i.e. the United States, Australia, and Japan, have all gradually enhanced diplomatic relations following the 2011 political reforms. When President Obama visited the country in 2014, he called upon Burmese to face “the danger of continued inter-communal violence,” but did not offer any consequences for a failure to abate the fighting. This is the standard for wealthy democracies who are now invested in the success story of Burmese democracy; they are unwilling to exhaust their diplomatic resources on safeguarding one ethnicity.
The unequivocally genocidal violence inflicted upon the Rohingya of western Burma has permanently altered the region’s ethnic composition. All too frequently, the families that have avoided slaughter are now too frightened to return home. Many more are awaiting their chance at the maritime escape routes to Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Last fall, Time magazine determined the demographic shift had reached “a point where complete extermination is a possibility…the final stages of genocide.”