When US President Barack Obama visits Myanmar this month, he must use his good offices for a humanitarian cause – to warn the regime of President Thein Sein against persecuting an estimated one million Rohingyas in the country. As the world gets pulled in different directions by multiple crises, the suffering and persecution of Rohingyas has been receiving scant attention. In this context, it is heartening that the demand for intervention on the issue has come from organizations within the US itself. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom urged Obama on Thursday to meet with Rohingya Muslims and other minorities and press the government to act to prevent “serious and alarming violence” against them. It also said Washington should continue to use sanctions against officials in Myanmar responsible for persecution of minorities and link lifting of sanctions to rights reform.
The persecution of Rohingyas and other minorities, including Christians, at the hands of Buddhist extremists has reached appalling levels and the world has chosen to look the other way while the government of Thein Sein abets the persecutors. The situation is toxic and if left unchecked, can trigger a refugee crisis of Syrian proportions. In the past three weeks alone, 14,500 Rohingyas have sailed from the beaches of Rakhine State to Thailand with the ultimate goal of reaching Malaysia. Riots are a permanent feature of life in Rakhine in which the victims are always Rohingyas. Instead of trying to control extremists, the government has been supporting them, even with repressive legislation. For example, the government has given Rohingyas a painful choice: prove that their family has lived there for more than 60 years and qualify for second-class citizenship or be placed in camps and face deportation. Washington and Naypyidaw have been on good terms after the latter chose to eschew military rule in favour of democratic reforms. Obama’s visit next week is a result of the blooming of these relations, and according to experts, the administration considers Myanmar a foreign policy success story in Asia. Thein Sein too has been elated about improving relations with US which is crucial for rebuilding the country’s battered economy.
Thein Sein must be told that the current economic and democratic reforms will be futile if not accompanied by religious freedom and peace. The immunity he has been enjoying for crimes against minorities is temporary. Soon, the world will be forced to sit up and take notice.
The US government agency said the president should show solidarity by using the term ‘Rohingya’ despite objections from Myanmar officials, and said Secretary of State John Kerry had disappointed Rohingyas by failing to do so on a visit in August.
A small gesture from Obama can go a long way in ending the persecution of Rohingyas.