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Interview: Risk of Mass Atrocities and Policies of Persecution in Burma


“We fear we will be wiped out.” – Tun Khin, Rohingya human rights defender

Many people around the world first heard of the Rohingya community in Myanmar – and the repressive policies they face in their homeland – when traffickers and smugglers left entire ships of Rohingya on the open sea without adequate food, water, or fuel to reach safety. Images of women, men, and children in this desperate situation led people to ask why so many people would embark on such a dangerous and often deadly journey in order to seek a new home. Why were they fleeing?

The Rohingya are a religious and ethnic minority in Myanmar who have faced state-led discrimination and violence for several decades. The Burmese government stripped the entire ethnic group of their citizenship, rendering most Rohingya stateless, and imposed discriminatory policies against Rohingya in some parts of the country that restrict movement, family size, and marriage. Recent restrictions have been installed to keep Rohingya from voting, which will keep them from participating in national elections slated for November 2015. While these laws and policies are directed only at Rohingya, these acts are carried out within a larger context of nationalism and discrimination against other minorities throughout the country.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center traveled to Rakhine State, in western Myanmar where many Rohingya live, to investigate a situation the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar has called possible crimes against humanity against the Rohingya community. Simon-Skjodt Center staff spoke with human rights activists, survivors of violence, politicians, women’s rights leaders, and other community representatives from a variety of backgrounds. Those we interviewed told the Center’s staff about outbreaks of violence against Rohingya in 2012. The violence was led by their Buddhist neighbors and often with the support or acquiescence of government officials, and left many Rohingya displaced. Center staff spoke with people living in deplorable conditions in internment camps far from their homes with no means of returning, or supporting their families. The Center’s findings were stark – that these early warning signs of genocide had come together to create a situation so tense, and so untenable, that a single spark could ignite mass violence. Rohingya were taking to the seas in vast numbers – double in spring of 2015 compared to the same time period in 2014 and 2013 – to flee the threat of genocide.

It is unsurprising then that the Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment currently places Myanmar, also called Burma, first out of 162 countries most at risk of a new episode of mass killing. Myanmar’s risk is driven mostly by the “bad regime” theory of why mass atrocities occur, which includes factors like authoritarian rule, an exclusionary elite ideology, and state-led discrimination.

Rohingya activists and survivors of violence remind us that these factors are more than parts of a statistical risk assessment; they have profound and lasting impacts on basic freedoms and everyday life. To go beyond the numbers, the Early Warning Project interviewed Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK and well-known Rohingya human rights activist, to hear his perspective on the risk of mass atrocities in Myanmar.

Why is the Burmese government enacting discriminatory policies against Rohingya? What is the government's goal?

The government has an overall policy to wipe out the Rohingya minority from Burma. This is because of ultra-nationalism in the country and because Rohingyas are ethnically and religiously different. Politically, they are unwanted. That feeling gives rise to ethnic and political persecution.

For how long have these policies been in place? What were things like before?

This has been going on for many decades. My parents along with 200 other Rohingya fled the country into neighboring Bangladesh in Spring 1978 during the first large-scale campaign against Rohingya. They were forced back to Burma in the same year, and a few years later I was born in northern Arakan State, Burma. Since then, my family and I have lived in legal limbo. Even though my grandfather was a parliamentary secretary, British educated and a Burmese national, I am now a refugee who is denied citizenship from the government of Burma. In my grandfather’s time, we had Rohingya social organizations in Rangoon, but not in my time.

What is the impact of discriminatory policies against Rohingya? What does this mean for Rohingya people living in Burma?

A discriminatory citizenship policy keeps us from going to university, it makes us stateless, and keeps us from working as civil servants. We face restrictions on movement, a two-child policy, and restrictions on marriage. A secret marriage can lead to 5-7 years in jail, which impacts our social life and creates an unbearable situation. With restrictions on movement, people cannot get medicine or go to a clinic. Even when my friend’s father passed away, my friend couldn’t go to the funeral because of restrictions on his movement – just because he was Rohingya.

Why are we seeing even more Rohingya fleeing Burma now? And what do you think is the most important thing the Burmese government can do right now to address this problem?

The fleeing is nothing new. In terms of a timeline, over the past few decades the Burmese government has stripped ethnic rights, our citizenship, and imposed local restrictions. When those policies first came about, Rohingya were fleeing even more. Then came popular violence against Rohingya and an anti-Rohingya propaganda campaign, and people were pushed from their homes into camps. With all of this happening now, how can people stay in camps without food, starving to death? They feel like they have to leave.

The Burmese government can address the problem by protecting people and restoring their full citizenship. Things will only get better when the government treats Rohingya as citizens with dignity and equality of other people in Burma.

What do you think other countries in Southeast Asia can do?

Other Southeast Asian countries should see that thousands of people are coming to their country because 1.3 Rohingya in Burma are fleeing an unbearable situation. It’s a regional issue. Other countries need to focus on the root cause of the problem because otherwise more people will flee and come to their countries.

Are there individuals or groups within the Burmese government who support Rohingya rights? Are they there, but afraid to speak out?

Unfortunately, we have not seen anyone. We have supported human rights and democracy in Burma – campaigned for them, but they are not speaking out. I don’t think they are afraid. I think they are taking advantage of things politically. But in the case of inhumanity and injustice, no one should be silent. What’s happening to us requires a serious kind of humanity – this is a very important moment for Rohingya.

What do you think policymakers in the United States and other countries can do to help the Rohingya community?

I appreciate that the US government has been raising concerns about Rohingya with the Burmese government, but there has been little practical action since 2012. The US government and others in the international community should call for an international investigation and for humanitarian aid to get in. The Burmese government needs to be warned that they will face consequences if this continues, and the US should give clear timing and benchmarks for these consequences.

Is there anything that gives you hope that the situation will improve for Rohingya in Burma?

I would like to be hopeful. We have been hoping for many decades for this nightmare to end. We hope for the best, but we are worried that if the international community doesn’t save us, we will be wiped out.

We recently heard from George Soros, who said that in 1944 he was a Rohingya too. With this kind of grave situation, the world needs to be more actively involved in this issue. Sadly, the government is succeeding in its policies. How much more will we have to suffer before there is action?

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