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Rohingya: It’s high time for Obama to act

Muslim Rohingya are currently imprisoned in refugee camps outside of Sittwe in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Editorial
November 18, 2014

For the United States, it seems that the penny is on the verge of dropping over Burma. President Barack Obama was alongside Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as she condemned the new Burmese constitution that will stop her from running in the upcoming presidential election. Obama’s statement that Washington would continue to support Burma’s transition to democracy but “that there was still work to be done” came over as very lame.

It clearly is dawning on the US leader and his advisers that the red carpet rolled out for the country’s military-appointed president Thein Sein was a mistake. The relaxation of sanctions since 2010 and the green light given to international business to pile into Burma in search of lucrative contracts was clearly premature. It was based on the premise that the leadership of the country would quickly pass to Suu Kyi. But a clause in the new constitution disqualifies her because she was married to a foreigner. This comes on top of a marked slowdown in the reform process over the last two years.

But the Americans are looking at the wrong problem. It is not the political transition which is the real issue. It is the country’s continuing appalling human rights record which ought to be giving Obama serious pause for thought. Burmese Muslims are still subject to covert official persecution. The most outstanding case of religious and racist persecution is, of course, that of the Rohingya Muslims. Subject to vicious persecution by Buddhist bigots led by fanatical monks, the Rohingya Muslims have been massacred and driven from their homes. Tens of thousands have fled this ethnic cleansing while the police and military have looked on. Attempts to use the legal process — the fundamental cornerstone of any civilized society — have been frustrated by the sinister ruling that the Rohingya have no legal rights because they are not Burmese citizens. 

The reality, of course, is that the attempt by Burma’s shadowy generals and demented Buddhist extremists to write some two hundred thousand Rohingyans out of Burmese history is false and based on an entirely selective interpretation of Burma’s colonial past. 

The Thein Sein regime’s role in the attempted crushing of the luckless Rohingya extends to the creation of concentration camps, into which they have been herded “for their own protection”. It is clear that at some appropriate point, the government is going to attempt a mass expulsion of this minority. But to where? This oppressed community has for many generations known no other home than Burma, even though they have long been treated as “untouchables” by many in the majority Buddhist population.

What is so extraordinary is that Suu Kyi herself has failed to come out firmly and characterize the government’s reprehensible treatment of the Rohingya as a race hate crime. Even more incredible is Obama’s blindness to these atrocities, despite damning reports from the United Nations and a range of highly reputable NGOs.

Many who sympathize with the wretched state in which the Rohingya find themselves will deeply regret the opportunity Obama missed, as he stood alongside the inspirational Nobel Peace laureate. He could have laid down the law, there and then, and said that the US-led sanctions would be reimposed unless the Thein Sein regime not only removed the exclusion of Suu Kyi from running for the presidency, but also ended the exclusion and persecution of the Rohingyans. At the moment Burmese justice and democracy is built on sand.

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