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U.S. Holocaust museum says this Muslim minority could face genocide

Women and children wait in line for medical care at the makeshift Aung Clinic which serves many Rohingya with a few dedicated staff giving free medical care. (Paula Bronstein/ for The Washington Post)

By Ishaan Tharoor
May 7, 2015

The official American institution memorializing the Holocaust sounded the alarm this week of the threat of a new genocide facing the beleaguered Rohingya of Burma, one of the world's most neglected communities. A reportpublished by the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a wing of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, charted the persecution, violence and systematic discrimination endured by this Muslim minority, and warned that it was a "population at grave risk for additional mass atrocities and even genocide."

The plight of the 1.3 million Rohingya is well-documented, if not particularly well-known. The majority live in Burma's Rakhine state, on the western border with Bangladesh and India. Even though many Rohingya can trace their roots in Burma through a number of generations, they are not recognized as citizens of the Burmese state, which has insisted on classing them as "Bengali" — a designation that suggests they may be interlopers from across the border. They therefore struggle for access to basic state services in what's already an underdeveloped, fractious, multi-ethnic nation, also known as Myanmar.

The partial democratization that's taken place in Burma, once dominated by a dictatorial military junta, has not helped the Rohingya. In recent years, the climate of hostility has, as the report puts it, led to the Rohingya being "subject to dehumanization through rampant hate speech, the denial of citizenship, and restrictions on freedom of movement, in addition to a host of other human rights violations."

Ethnic violence in 2012 led to tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to miserable, squalid camps; countless others have chosen to leave the country altogether, sometimes at hideous cost. The waters of the Andaman Sea as well as the jungles of Thailand still hold the unclaimed corpses of many Rohingya, whose vulnerable position on the margins of the Burmese state have made them prey to human traffickers.

The Simon-Skjodt Center's report was in part based on a fact-finding mission to Burma's Rakhine state this March, where the researchers found what they deemed were "early warning signs of genocide" in Burma. Earlier research and advocacy conducted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum has included studies on the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic.

"We’re very cautious when we invoke the term genocide, knowing that it can be quite polarizing and sometimes even unhelpful," says Cameron Hudson, the Center's director. "But there is a combination of factors — many of which you saw in 1930s Germany and 1990s Rwanda — that are quite concerning."

To be sure, slaughter and upheaval of the scale referenced by Hudson are so far not in the cards in Burma, but it's his institution's mandate to spot the roots of such potential mass violence.

"What we're talking about here is the targeting of a specific group, based on their religious and national identity," he says. For the Rohingya, their continued denial of citizenship rights — a U.N. General Assembly resolution passed in December demanding Burma recognize the Rohingya was dismissed with derision by the Burmese government — has been reinforced by a growing Buddhist nationalism among some Burmese.

The report found the Rohingya to be the subject of "rampant hate speech" in Burma. It also documented widespread impunity for those carrying out violence against the persecuted minority, as well as worrying trends of local and national discrimination against the Rohingya, including the restriction of their movement and likely their ability to be able to vote in elections expected for later this year.

No wonder the U.N. recently described the Rohingya "as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world."

Questions that Hudson and his colleagues asked of local government authorities about the group's treatment were met with responses that "were not at all satisfactory," he says.

What has disappointed many outside observers, including Hudson and his team, has been the relative indifference of Burma's pro-democracy camp to the plight of the Rohingya. This includes the Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who's now a prominent opposition politician.

"One of the things that concerned us the most was that this pro-democracy segment has been largely silent on the issue," says Hudson. The Rohingya's desperate lack of wider support within the country leaves them particularly exposed in the febrile, fractious Burmese political scene.

"This [upcoming] election could be the flashpoint that sets off an episode of mass killing," warns Hudson.

You can read the full report here.

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