USNews.com: Speak Out for the Rohingya

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com


As the Western world turns to thoughts of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and the fantasy in lights, a sinister drama continues in Burma. The United States, doubly distracted by “news” that used to parade as tabloid gossip, has attempted to shine a small light on the tragedy. The tragedy of the Rohingya people dwarfs any domestic story in the Western world, and save for the menace of North Korea, China, terrorism and Russia, internationally as well. Ultimately, the disaster is submerged in a sea of chatter.

The news has often focused on the faltering reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is in a political battle with General Min Aung Hlaing; it has been speculated that her indifference or silence is the price she must pay to stay in her precarious position of power. The atrocities committed by the Burmese military against the Rohingya have been chronicled many times over and include mass killing, concentration camps, rape, arson, and property theft. During any reasonable period, we would simply use the term genocide. This has resulted in the flight of 625,000 Rohingya (about 2/3 of their population), primarily to the squalor of refugee camps in impoverished Bangladesh.

The Burmese Buddhist majority accounts for 69 percent of the population and notably sided with the Japanese during World War II. The Rohingya stayed loyal to the allied side. In 1947, the British helped to orchestrate the 1947 Panglong Agreement which stated: “Citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.” Rohingya received official national identity cards, many received citizenship, and some served in parliament.

But in 1962 a socialist military coup took over the Burmese government. The quasi Marxist experiment was a catastrophe, and, needing a scapegoat for their dictatorship, the Rohingya were persecuted, and a militant brand of Buddhism climbed into ascendency. The Rohingya were stripped of citizenship in 1974 and declared foreigners in 1982. This effectively made them stateless. The Burmese government consistently refers to the Rohingya as Bengalis in an effort to ostracize them.

The recent cascade of violence began in 2012. It should be remembered that the Burmese government has a penchant for murder, rape, arson and property theft against most ethnic minorities in Burma such as the predominantly Christian Kachin, the Karen and Shan.

Pope Francis avoided using the Rohingya term in November while in Burma (though he used it three months ago) for fear of antagonizing the military and harming the country’s Catholic minority. Perhaps, smarting from comparisons with Pope Pius the XII and accusations that he failed to fully condemn the human rights abuses, Francis spoke to a large crowd in Dhaka last Friday and uttered the word that was not supposed to be spoken when he stated, “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”