Myanmar: Why Obama Needs to Highlight the Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims

President Thein Shein of Myanmar is visiting the White House today, the first time that a Burmese head of state has visited the USA in nearly 50 years. His visit marks the culmination of a remarkable turnaround for a country that spent much of the last two decades years under the jackboot of an oppressive military Junta.

Still, all is not well in Myanmar.  It unfortunately not been covered much in the media here in the USA, but ethnic cleansing is ongoing in Myanmar today. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya people, who are Muslim in a majority Buddhist country and live largely in one state, have been forcibly displaced.

A report by Human Rights Watch, All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State demonstrates how the government is culpable in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced over 150,000 people.  The report goes into fine detail of the dehumanizing rhetoric employed by the government to stir the masses against the Rohingya; the efforts to hide crimes against humanity by dumping bodies in mass graves; and the ongoing impunity enjoyed by government officials who orchestrated the ethnic cleansing.

“The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country.”

Following sectarian violence between Arakanese and Rohingya in June 2012, government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests, and blocked aid to displaced Muslims. On October 23, after months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing, Arakanese mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships, razing villages and killing residents while security forces stood aside or assisted the assailants. Some of the dead were buried in mass graves, further impeding accountability.

Human Rights Watch encourages donor countries like the USA to “publicly press Burmese authorities to end discrimination and violence against Rohingya and other vulnerable minorities, making clear that such actions will harm  Burma’s bilateral relationships and international standing.”  President Obama has a very good opportunity to do just that at the White House today.

A government that permits or otherwise encourages ethnic cleansing should not be considered a partner of the United States.

If President Obama does not make the plight of the Rohingya front of the White House visit,  he will have missed a key opportunity to stop an ongoing crime against humanity.