Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, nestled between Bangladesh and Thailand. Its 54 million citizens are ethnically diverse but overwhelmingly Buddhist, though the country has small groups of Christians and Muslims. Since receiving independence in 1948, the country has been defined by its ongoing internal ethnic conflict and strife.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority within the western portion of Burma, most of whom are Muslim. Numbering close to one million and living close to the border with Bangladesh, at least 500,000 Rohingya have fled to that neighboring country (or beyond to India) for shelter from persecution. The Burmese government does not recognize the Rohingya as lawful citizens, but rather as Bangladeshi squatters, and denied them citizenship in 1982, leaving them stateless. Attacks on the Rohingya are often perpetrated by the military and police forces, but the government of Burma has censored the details of the violence. The country has also denied the United Nations, journalists, and human rights advocates access to the country.
However, reporters have been able to talk with the Rohingya who made it to temporary safety in Bangladesh, often living in refugee camps near the border. These victims shared stories of mass killings, gang rapes, and brutal beatings; more than half the women interviewed were victims of sexual violence. Corroborating satellite images have shown Rohingya villages burning. What is happening to the Rohingya is ethnic cleansing, not hyperbole or rhetoric. And while the persecution has persisted for decades, the recent uptick in violence seems to be related to the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army’s attack on Burma’s police posts last summer, which left 12 Burmese security officers dead. In response, Burma’s military retaliation has intensified their persecution of the Rohingya population, causing mass suffering and displacement.
This most recent humanitarian crisis is not an aberration in Burma’s brief history. The Karen and Chin ethnic groups in the country have also been viciously persecuted in the past years, and refugees from Burma constitute a large percentage of the United States’ overall refugee admissions. Since 2005, the U.S. has resettled nearly 170,000 Burmese refugees. The current Administration has also pledged $32 million in humanitarian aid for the Rohingya crisis. Unfortunately, the desired drawdown of refugee admissions and the snail’s pace of processing, though publicly billed as preventing terrorist infiltration into the Syrian refugee program, have had the unintentional consequence of cutting the annual number of Rohingya refugee admissions to the U.S. in half.