Rohingya Muslims, Persecuted Myanmar Minority, Draw Crucial Attention From Obama Visit

Muslim women gather at the Thae-Chaung refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Myanmar
Muslim women gather at the Thae-Chaung refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Myanmar's government said Monday it has boosted security in the western state hit by ethnic and sectarian unrest as the number of displaced rose to 28,000 people, mostly Muslims. The latest violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which began Oct. 21, killed at least 84 people and injured 129 more, according to the government. Human rights groups believe the true toll could be far higher. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

In one brief visit on Monday morning, President Obama drew crucial attention to one of the world's most egregious human rights tragedies, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

A Muslim minority situated along the country's western coast, the Rohingyas have been brutally targeted for extinction by ethnic Arakanese, aided at times by government security officials. Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch earlier this month exposed destruction covering 348 acres and involving at least 4,855 destroyed structures. At least 200 people have died in recent attacks, and more than 100,000 people have been displaced in the violence.

The Rohingya Muslims have faced a campaign of terror simply because of their faith and their ethnic identity. Their plight has been largely unnoticed in the international community, and ignored by the government of Myanmar.

That's why I was elated to see that President Obama took time during his Monday visit to Myanmar to visit with an advocate of the Rohingya community. This simple action spoke volumes of the U.S. commitment to this suffering Muslim minority, and the ongoing pledge of the Obama administration to encourage true progress in Myanmar. In a statement during his visit, Obama urged the nation to view its "diversity as a strength, not a weakness."

Last week I spoke to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Permanent Observer to the U.N., Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen. He told me personally of his recent visit to Myanmar, where he traveled to Rakhine state to visit the Rohingya population and report firsthand on the tragedy.

"Although this issue is not well known, it's a massive human rights issue," he told me. The OIC is taking measures to aid the Rohingya population, and draw greater attention to the issue. Amb. Gokcen spoke of witnessing firsthand the "hatred toward Rohingyas, and their treatment as outsiders," adding that "they are not even seen as human beings."

Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, and it is significant that he used this opportunity to draw attention not only to the hints of progress achieved over recent months, but to the pain suffered by ethnic and religious minorities such as the Rohingyas.

The president stated that he believes that "this country can transcend its differences," and encouraged Myanmar to recognize "that every human being within these borders is a part of your nation's story." I applaud President Obama's initiative in drawing attention to this critical human rights issue, and I hope that the Obama administration will see his visit as a crucial first step in raising the plight of the Rohingyas and ending the campaign of terror they have endured.