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Burma Genocide (Case of Burmese Rohingyas presented at Harvard)

By Alvin Powell
November 7, 2014

Burma’s Rohingya people are being slowly squeezed from their homeland by decades-long government policies that deny them citizenship, health care, work, and school, and which are punctuated by killings, destroyed homes, and tens of thousands rounded up into camps.

That was the picture painted by Harvard scholars and Burmese activists who gathered in Cambridge to discuss what they described as the “slow-burning genocide” of Burma’s Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Buddhist majority Burma that has endured a wide array of abuse at the hands of the former military government there.

Though the international community has welcomed steps toward Burmese democracy in recent years, the situation for the Rohingya has improved little, speakers said Tuesday. The Rohingya remain a stateless people, denied citizenship and subject to not just official oppression, but also to violence from Buddhist Rakhine people, as evidenced by 2012 riots that displaced 90,000 people and which speakers said are supported by the government.

The Rohingya’s troubles can be traced to a 1982 citizenship law that failed to list them among the nation’s indigenous people. Instead, they were classified as Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denied citizenship. Subsequent campaigns against the minority group have turned not just official policy against them, but also public opinion, something important to change if the situation is to be remedied, according to Thomas W. Lamont University Professor Amartya Sen.

“In order to win this battle, I think the support of the people is absolutely essential, who have been fed lies,” Sen said.

Sen said that it’s important that the international community pressure the government to change its official policy and restore citizenship to the group and that educational campaigns begin to change the minds of the broader population.

Sen’s comments came Tuesday in Loeb House on Harvard’s Cambridge campus. The event, “The Slow-Burning Genocide of Rohingyas,” was intended to review the situation and develop a research agenda for work that will provide a foundation for advocacy and identify possible interventions. It featured several members of the Rohingya refugee community, representatives of groups interested in humanitarian issues, such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Physicians for Human Rights, the nonprofit China Medical Board, and the British think tank the Overseas Development Institute.

Harvard faculty and researchers involved included Sen, Associate Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine and Associate Professor of Medicine Felicia Knaul, and Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine Maung Zarni. The event was convened by the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, which Knaul directs, together with partner organizations.

In introductory remarks, Knaul said that research into the problem is important and that evidence that results can inform advocacy. She also said that the problem of genocide is personal to her, since her father survived Auschwitz and much of the rest of her family was killed in the Holocaust.

In a related story, researchers at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School released a report this week detailing war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Burmese military against another Burmese ethnic group, the Karen, who live near the country’s border with Thailand. The report names three high-ranking officers in charge of the campaign against the Karen and said that villagers were “indiscriminately attacked” that civilians were “captured and executed,” and that tens of thousands were displaced during the campaign, which occurred from 2005 to 2008.

“To break the prevailing cycles of violence in Myanmar, there is a need for concerted effort to reform military policies and practices that have fueled indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians,” the report said. “Scrutiny into other military operations, particularly those that are ongoing, is also warranted.”

At Tuesday’s event concerning the Rohingya, Sen said that it is important that the term “genocide” not be tossed around lightly, and he acknowledged that this situation looks different from murderous examples from Nazi Germany and Rwanda in 1994. Still, he said, it applies in this case, with lives lost not just from the outbursts of violence, but also because people are denied healthcare and a means to make a living.

Malik Mujahid, chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions and president of Justice for All, showed aerial photos of whole neighborhoods burned to ash, the residents of which were marched off to concentration camps, where some 140,000 live today, often with not enough to eat. Those Rohingya who live outside are barred from attending school, holding jobs, or traveling freely. They must ask government permission to marry and are limited to just two children.

Hundreds of those who are outside leave daily, he said, risking dangerous travel on overcrowded boats to become refugees in Bangladesh, Thailand and other nearby nations.

Tun Khin, a Rohingyan refugee, was born in Burma and grew up there. He and his parents fled Burma in the 1970s for Bangladesh. They were repatriated to Burma, and eventually fled a second time. Today, he is a refugee living in the United Kingdom, neither a Burmese citizen nor a foreigner, and called for support to relieve the Rohingya’s “collective nightmare.”

Daw Kin Hla, a former Burmese schoolteacher and now also a refugee, said she was born in Burma in 1952, and had worked as a middle school teacher before leaving the country. Rohingya civil servants, she said, have been forced to retire or quit their jobs. Today, she said, her family is fractured, with her and her husband in the U.K., a son in Germany, and another son and daughter in the U.S.

U Ba Sein, another Rohingya refugee living in the U.K., traced the oppression to the late 1970s. He witnessed people being physically abused by army personnel, tied up and marched off, and heard stories of rapes and killings.

Zarni, who co-authored the 2014 report, “The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya” in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, said that, contrary to the government’s assertions, the Rohingya have always lived in Burma, with mention of them dating back to the colonial period in 1790 and their being recognized by the post-independence Burmese government.

“They did not come from anywhere else. The Rohingya are there on their ancestral land,” Zarni said.

Zarni detailed both official and popular narratives in Burma that see Rohingya as illegal immigrants, as a threat to national security, as “viruses” and “invaders,” a threat to Buddhist culture, and economic blood-suckers.

“This is a genocide that is burning slowly… over 36 years,” Zarni said.

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