Obama is set to visit Burma - but will he help the tormented Rohingya people?

Evidence is mounting that attacks on the Rohingya are not just skirmishes but an organised pogrom

Share
Related Topics

“Please treat us like human beings” the sign reads. It is one of several placards held up by the emaciated inhabitants of a refugee camp in Rakhine state, Burma, captured in a photograph taken by locals. 

It can hardly be said to be an unreasonable plea. Sadly, it may be a hopeless one-for those making the appeal- the Rohingya people of Burma- are not treated like human beings. Instead, they are a stateless minority, suffering from the continual threat of racist violence from their neighbours. This year 100,000 or more have been driven from their homes by mob attacks, which destroyed entire villages and neighbourhoods

Sources within Burma have sent a plethora of photos, pixellated phone videos, and messages to me this week, desperate to share visible records of their suffering. The refugee camp protest photo is certainly among the least upsetting files I’ve received. Some appear to show the victims of ethnic violence in June; others appear to be from last month’s equally bloody riots. They are, for the most part, harrowing and gruesome: shots of dead babies; corpses putrefying on beaches; young people shot in the groin or stomach; purported torture victims. Such horrors, I am told, are the result of intentional pogroms - not mere “ethnic skirmishes” as some have portrayed events.

Police attacks

In addition to visual evidence, I have received compelling witness testimony. One source from Sittwe told me that he had clearly observed police involvement in some of this year’s violence. He stated that a group of thousands of Rakhine “including police, security forces” had surrounded the Rohingya area in June and that “everybody [in the mob] had a sword, some had weapons, some guns.” He saw that houses were subjected to arson attacks, after which time the occupants fled their homes only to be attacked by the crowd. “Rakhine started killing us, our people tried to protect [themselves]…at that time police shot us.”

Such claims of systematic, discriminatory violence are supported by independent analysis. Andrew Heyn, Britain’s ambassador to Burma told Radio 4 recently that “there’s compelling evidence, that this latest wave of attacks [against the Rohingya]...were pre-planned, coordinated and organised.”

Adding to the case for high-level involvement, a Reuters investigation released this weekend quoted senior political sources as stating that the recent attacks against Rohingya were “led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks, and… abetted at times by local security forces.”

It’s clear that the Rohingya have also been the target of hostility from a large number of Buddhist monks, who are influential among the population. Yet one prominent Buddhist figure has spoken out, arguing that political forces are seeking to stir up inter-communal animosities for their own gain.  Ashin Gambhira, a monk who was heavily involved in 2007’s brutally suppressed Saffron revolution, wrote recently: “the neo-military dictatorship has exploited and fostered a new national crisis, a religious conflict, the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict, for its own purposes…  These clashes were encouraged by the military.”

This is ethnic cleansing

American human rights advocate Dr. Nora Rowley, drawing on her experience of working in Burma, told me that the attacks on the Rohingya were “absolutely” being backed by members of the former military junta, now incorporated into the political elite. She suggested “what we need right now is to connect the regime with what’s going on so the international community know it’s not an internal matter.”

I asked her what she believes will happen if nothing is done to protect the victims. “Ethnic cleansing completion,” was her terse reply.

The recent news that Barack Obama is set to visit Burma’s President Thein Sein in coming days has been the source of some hope to those that imagine he may seek to press Burma on the plight of the Rohingya. Yet there is room for pessimism: American business interests in the country are strong, as are geo-political concerns - Burma sits between two regional powers, India and China, and Washington will be mindful of the importance of gaining a stronger foothold in the strategically-positioned country.  As a result, Obama may not push too hard on an issue that is domestically controversial in order to advance other agendas.

However, as I have argued before, the safety of the imperiled Rohingya people is an issue of major concern to those who value the rights of threatened minorities - and the shame will belong to all of us if the world fails to prevent an entirely predictable humanitarian catastrophe in the near future. More has to be done.  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine