Here's a familiar story -- a minority religious group is persecuted and its members killed for their beliefs, with early records of massacres dating from 1050 AD. Religious intolerance against dietary laws and discrimination, sometimes violent, continued over the centuries until by 1930, riots were common, with great loss of life and shops, houses and religious buildings looted, destroyed and burned.
It sounds like the history of Jews in Europe, but no -- it is the tragic story of Muslims in Burma, or Myanmar. The Burma Muslim minority mostly consists of the Rohingya people who are descendants of Muslim immigrants from India or neighboring Bangladesh. Persecuted by the Buddhist majority for centuries, Burmese Muslims have recently suffered from brutal human rights violations under the Burmese junta and many refugees have fled the violence to Bangladesh and Thailand. The recent news of mass killings of Rohingya Muslims amounts to genocide, in my opinion, and what is almost more appalling is the silence of most of the world's media.
Demonstrations and protests in India have condemned the government of Burma and have asked why the Dalai Lama and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi have remained silent. So far she has not criticized President Thein Sein for endorsing policies that are essentially ethnic cleansing, and critics suggest she also sees the Muslim group as immigrants rather than citizens. The Rohingya have never been granted Burmese citizenship and a 1982 law excluded them from the list of officially recognized minorities.
Amnesty International reports that Muslims in Burma's western state of Arakan have been subjected to attacks and arbitrary arrests in the weeks since communal violence erupted but it is difficult to verify any of the information, as journalists cannot access the area. Western news media should not use that as an excuse to stay silent however and international attention is desperately needed to find out what is really happening in Myanmar. Impartial observers should be allowed in the region immediately, to report on and prevent the government and local extremist groups forcing Rohingya people out of their homes, off their land, and into dangerous refugee camps.
Protesters in India and Pakistan have pleaded with United Nations to take a stand on behalf of the Rohingya, recognized by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. There has been wide coverage in the Pakistani media and Chairman of the PTI party Imran Khan was reported July 26 as urging the international community to stop the potential genocide.
Since the riots began, the Burmese authorities have ordered all international NGOs out of the region. Dozens of local NGO staff have been arrested, and hundreds remain out of contact. The north of Rhakine state, where it is estimated more than 700,000 Rohingya live, has effectively been turned into a complete blind spot. If Myanmar's democracy activists and human rights defenders cannot immediately address the impending humanitarian crisis and potential devastation of the Rohingya people then hopefully the international Muslim media will be more outspoken.
Unfortunately, the world seems to be preoccupied with the Olympic Games right now. One would hope that the impending humanitarian crisis in Burma would take precedence over stories about the authenticity of athletic shoes. The tragedy of the Rohingya people could be an opportunity for the United Nations to step up its approach to ending all minority persecution everywhere on religious grounds.
In Pakistan and India for example, the majority religions should stop persecuting Christians or minority religions or sects such as the Ahmadis. Sunnis and Shias persecute each other in different countries as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Olympics would be a great forum and opportunity to call for an end to religious persecution internationally, but that is probably wishful thinking in a world that trivializes distant disasters and turns instead to the latest soccer scores. The global community still has a long way to go in its evolution towards compassion, humanity and freedom and dignity for all.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.