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Rohingya refugees seek hope in Obama’s visit to Myanmar

Noorboshar Bin Lukman Hakim (right) and Muzafar Jalil settled in Nashua. (Photo: Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe)

By Jessica Meyers
November 13, 2014

NASHUA — Khatijah Abdul Shukur barely sleeps now, unable to shake calls from her family in Myanmar whose lives don’t match the country’s heralded reforms.

Their pleas for food, medicine, and safety have come faster in recent weeks as Myanmar officials take more direct actions against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority long persecuted by Buddhist extremists and denied citizenship by the government.

The worsening situation throws President Obama into an awkward position this week as he makes his second trip to the Southeast Asian nation, where the crisis threatens democratic efforts and challenges what the administration considers one of its key foreign policy accomplishments.

At least 14,500 Rohingya have attempted the treacherous boat ride to Thailand in the last month, according to The Arakan Project, a group that tracks Rohingya refugees. Around 140,000, including Abdul Shukur’s family, live in gritty internment camps on Myanmar’s western coast.

The 25 families in Nashua, who make up the largest Rohingya community in New England, share a similar story of concern and helplessness. They fled to Thailand and Malaysia years ago, following a refugee trail that led them to Nashua. But many of their mothers, sisters, and sons remain trapped in a society that does not appear to want them.

Obama’s visit is absorbing the attention of lawmakers, human rights advocates, and the cluster of refugees in this city just north of Massachusetts.

“Everyday starts with me thinking I haven’t done anything for them,” said Abdul Shukur, a housekeeper at a nearby hotel.

Myanmar, strategically located between India and China, could prove to be a significant regional ally for the United States. Formerly known as Burma, this country of 53 million people represents one of the world’s last untapped markets for everything from telecom service to fast food.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton nurtured a relationship with Myanmar in 2010 when it began to open after almost half a century of repressive military rule.

Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country in 2012 and praised the country’s democratic reforms, including the release of Nobel Peace Price laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

His current trip, in which he will attend two summits, appears less hopeful.

A parliamentary committee in June voted against changing the constitution so Suu Kyi could run for president next year. The government jailed journalists in July for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory. Officials prohibited Rohingya from participating in a recent census and are considering a bill that would ban interfaith marriage.

The Myanmar government has not authorized the return of Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group that provides health care to Rohingya. Officials kicked the group out of the country’s western region in February.

Secretary of State John Kerry made little public mention of the Rohingya issue in his August visit and cautioned patience toward the country’s monumental shift.

“You don’t just achieve results by the consequence of looking at somebody and ordering them to do it or telling them to do it or else,” he told reporters in Myanmar’s capital this summer.

Rohingya family members rode a trishaw at Thet Kel Pyin Muslim refugee camp near Sittwe, Rakhine State, this week as Myanmar awaited President Obama’s visit. (Photo: Nyunt Win/European Pressphoto Agency)

But outside pressure has increased.

Obama called Myanmar President Thein Sein last month and stressed the need to “support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya population,” according to the White House. In a Wednesday interview with The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar magazine, Obama admitted slow progress. He echoed concern over the treatment of Rohingya and said he plans to emphasize that “fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected.”

Myanmar’s latest proposed policy is viewed by the Rohingya as outright persecution. Called the Rakhine Action Plan, it demands Rohingya in Rakhine State prove their residence for more than six-decades to gain a form of citizenship. Otherwise, they must relocate to camps and await possible deportation. The western region, where around one million Rohingya live, faces the greatest tensions.

Human Rights Watch has labeled it “a blueprint for permanent segregation.” Fortify Rights, an advocacy group based in Bangkok, released a report last week accusing the country’s security forces of profiting off the exodus.

“Things are getting so bad that I don’t think this administration can any longer turn a blind eye or say things will get better,” said Representative James McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who helped organize a letter to the White House signed by 40 House lawmakers. “There has to be a very direct message to the [Myanmar] government there that there is a consequence to this.”

The Myanmar embassy did not respond to requests for comment. Officials have denied responsibility for violence against Rohingya and pitched the plan as a means to reconstruct the conflict-ridden state.

A 1982 law labels Rohingya as Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and bars them from full citizenship.

Hope for any real change relies on both the country’s leadership and its opposition addressing widespread ethnic conflict.

“No Burmese politician has wanted to get their hands into this one,” said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s really part of the tragedy.”

New England’s Rohingya community watches from Nashua, a spot refugees landed largely through the assistance of a Lutheran social service agency.

Three Rohingya men, who range from early-30s to mid-60s, live in an apartment off Main Street where a curtain separates one bedroom. A plastic map of the United States hangs on the wall, near a series of Arabic sayings.

They see a bigger role for the president.

“Mr. Obama, pressure President Thein Sein to recognize the ethnicities of Burma and let them go to their villages,’” Mohamad Sideik, who has not seen his wife or daughter in 16 years, said through a translator.

The men talk occasionally about the jungle trek they took to Thailand and the family they had to leave behind. Only one understands English.

Burma Task Force USA, an organization set up last year to assist Burmese Muslims, estimates 600 Rohingya live in the United States.

They have converted a small building near the railroad tracks here into a mosque, but can afford an imam only once a week.

Abdul Shukur, her husband, and son live in a sparse apartment above the men.

The boy was born in Malaysia and chats on the phone to a grandmother he has not met. Abdul Shukur does not tell him that his cousins cannot go to school or that she spent two years in prison in her first attempt to flee.

She does not tell him they may never go back.

Jessica Meyers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.

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