The Rohingya people in Burma have been suffering from untold misery, displacement and violent death since 2012 when hundreds were killed and more than 140,000 forced to flee their homes. The government of Burma not only refuses to take action against the repression and killing of the Rohingya people, but angrily denies responsibility, when it is abundantly clear that government forces and police are committing much of the violence and either condoning or supporting Burmese Buddhist civilians who are committing these crimes against the Rohingya people.
It is an appalling travesty of so-called democracy in a country that once inspired the world when it threw off military dictatorship and allowed Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to enter politics after so many years under house arrest. However, the mentality of the generals still pervades the country, as does an unhealthy and brutal racial prejudice against the Rohingya people who are Muslims.*
The latest atrocities reported on January 14 in the village of Du Chee Yar Yan is a tragic reminder that the so-called reform government of Burma continues to act with impunity at a level described by Human Rights Watch as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. While official protests have been made by the UN, U.S. and UK, the government response was to cover up the massacre of the villagers and to deny it took place. However, reports confirming it have reached the outside world and the greater tragedy is that there are no consequences for the government of Burma.
A pattern of repression and discrimination has led to virtual concentration camps being established for the dispossessed Rohingya population, overcrowded and unsanitary and cut off from international humanitarian aid. Stripped of their Burmese citizenship, the people are now stateless and unwelcome in Bangladesh which has its own poverty-stricken population to cope with. Dozens of boats carrying Rohingya refugees have capsized as people have tried to escape the camps by sea to Indonesia or southern Thailand. The camps remain as sordid ghettoes, with children and young people growing up full of resentment and grievance, fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
Buddhist religious bigotry has shocked the West and the fact that it is condoned by the national government is appalling. Aung San Suu Kyi has been vague and circumspect when asked about the Rohingya people, disappointing her admirers with her lack of moral leadership. The West must do more to link diplomacy and aid to the protection of religious minority rights, instead of making vaguely optimistic statements such as President Obama's in his November 2012 visit to Burma.
"There is no excuse for violence against innocent people," he said, while pledging support and money if reform continued. "I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed," Obama concluded, however, he was unable to predict the continuing violence against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma that has created a humanitarian crisis and prevented Burma from building a viable democracy.
In the meantime, sanctions have been lifted and President Thien Sein's government now has no need to court the West and amend the blatantly undemocratic provisions in the country's constitution. The military still has veto power over constitutional change which effectively bans opposition parties from bringing about the reforms which would end decades of ethnic violence. Religious chauvinism promoted by militant Buddhist monks is a powerful and well-funded force behind shadowy conservative forces in Burma, which are working against the popular appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
Parliamentary elections late next year may have little or nothing to offer in the way of hope for the Rohingya people if Burma's leaders continue to be ambivalent about its religious minorities. The refusal of President Thein Sein's office to acknowledge Rohingyas as Burmese nationals is a chilling echo of the Nazi regime's treatment of Jews during World War Two. To simply write off an ethnic minority as a nuisance to be put into virtual concentration camps and left to live in segregated squalor can no longer be overlooked by civilized people.
The UN, UK and U.S. and the entire international community must pressure the Burmese government to allow humanitarian access to the Rohingya people, to prevent their segregation into camps and to allow them official protection and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship. Anything less is just foolish optimism that the situation will change; allowing it to continue is condoning genocide and is a failure of international humanitarian action on a shameful scale.
*This post previously described the Rohingya as "originally from neighboring Bangladesh" and has been updated to reflect that the Rohingya's origins are a matter of dispute.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a Lecturer at the University of Chicago.