In spite of the new, relatively democratic government in Burma, discrimination against the Burmese Muslim minority Rohingya continues. New reports indicate a resurgence in violence, raising concerns that Rohingya are victims of genocide.
In 2014 and 2015 about 47,000 Rohingya fled Burma by sea, contributing to what became known as the Southeast Asian migrant crisis. Back then, however, Burma was ruled by a military junta and ranked among the most unfree countries in the world. Under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma is much more capable of helping the Rohingya—but so far Suu Kyi has failed to take adequate action.
The International Organization on Migration estimates that 21,000 Rohingya have fled Burma in the last few weeks. Most left the Maungdaw and Rathedaung districts, where Human Rights Watch satellite photos show homes burned and villages razed. Burma is blocking humanitarian aid to those areas, cutting off essential supplies such as food and health care for an estimated 130,000 people. Exact numbers cannot be determined because journalists are forbidden to enter the area.
Refugees who manage to escape run into other difficulties upon entering neighboring states. Bangladesh closed its borders to Rohingya in 1992 after absorbing a few hundred thousand refugees from crises in the 1970s and 1980s. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya currently live in Bangladesh. Australia has also closed its borders to Rohingya, saying that resettlement is Southeast Asia’s responsibility.
Both Indonesia and Malaysia take in Rohingya, but treat them as undocumented migrants, meaning that they receive few protections. Thailand is perhaps the most open Southeast Asian country. Even so, however, refugees there are in danger of being exploited by traffickers.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s response has been disappointingly inconsistent. In a Sept. 21 address at the UN, she expressed her desire to protect human rights and promised to set up a commission to investigate the Rakhine region. However, she did not name the Rohingya in her speech, referring obliquely to the “Rakhine state” instead.
Buddhist nationalists in Burma call the Rohingya “Bengalis” as a derogatory term to emphasize their foreignness, and it is crucial for Suu Kyi to legitimize Rohingya by referencing them directly.
Since September, Suu Kyi’s office seems to have faltered on promises to help. The state counselor’s office, echoing the military, denied that persecution is happening in Rakhine. Suu Kyi herself recently filed a complaint against the UN for reporting that Burma was engaging in “ethnic cleansing” and asked the international community to stop “drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment.”
A Heritage Foundation report on the Southeast Asian migrant crisis notes that there are steps the Burmese government could take to improve conditions for Rohingya:
Burma refuses to acknowledge that its policy toward the Rohingya has exacerbated and, in large part caused, the migrant crisis. Identification cards—the last shred of identification afforded to the Rohingya in Burma—were recently revoked by the Burmese government. Burma should legalize the Rohingya, especially Rohingya who already legally qualify as citizens.
Suu Kyi may be caught between the forces of nationalism and pressures from human rights groups, but she must take a stand by recognizing Rohingya as citizens. At the very least, Suu Kyi must clarify her rhetoric and speak out on their behalf.