Tina L. Mufford is senior policy analyst for the East Asia-Pacific region at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). She actively monitors and reports on religious freedom violations in Burma, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, North Korea, and Vietnam. She is the author of, among others, "Suspended in Time: The Ongoing Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma" (December 2016) and "A Right for All: Freedom of Religion or Belief in ASEAN" (September 2017), a USCIRF report about freedom of religion or belief in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region.
Religion can bring people together in fellowship and enrich communities’ social fabric. But it can also become an agent of social cleavage, ripping families and neighbors apart when used as a tool to exclude others, particularly when religion is blended with ethnicity, culture, language, education, and national identity. In Burma (also known as Myanmar), some military, government, and societal actors deliberately and maliciously tap into this inherent divisiveness to advance agendas that are religiocentric and ethnocentric, often for personal or political gain.
This is exemplified in the military’s ruthless crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state, as well as in the government’s inept response to the crisis and Burmese society’s outward lack of empathy for the slaughter of their fellow humans. The primary culprit: Burma’s security forces under the direction of Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Without control over the military, state counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is in many respects powerless to stop the general and his forces in their heinous acts. She does, however, have a voice and leadership role, but according to some critics, she has lacked the political will to buck the popular sentiment of a majority Buddhist society, satisfied that the military is exterminating the interloper “Bengalis,” as Rohingya Muslims are often called.
The international community has rightly expressed outrage and horror at the military’s large-scale attacks and human rights abuses against innocent Rohingya Muslims and other civilians. Similarly, many in the international community have unequivocally condemned the insurgent Rohingya actors who attacked security forces leading to injury and death. Violence begets violence, and it is never the solution.
Following in the footsteps of the United Nations’ strong statements asserting likely ethnic cleansing in Burma, many around the world have insisted on using this label, some even calling it genocide. The scope and scale of atrocities is clearly damning despite the government of Burma’s systematic efforts to block access to Rakhine state to anyone who might tell the truth about what has transpired. Yet labeling the horror does not alone resolve the crisis.
It is the ultimate Gordian knot. On one hand, critics assail the international community for being long on rhetoric and short on action. Without a doubt, Burma and the international community must partner to address the long-term root causes of conflict in Rakhine state and throughout the country, in part by swiftly implementing the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine state. This includes a fair and reasonable path to citizenship for Rohingya Muslims.
But on the other hand, and in the near term, more than 500,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and countless others remaining in Burma face disease, malnutrition, death, and the immeasurable trauma from the despair and terror of recent weeks. Their needs and suffering are immediate, and the responsibility to urgently respond lies with the entire international community and Burma.
In addition, Burma’s government must allow entry and access to the United Nations’ fact-finding mission. Further delaying the visit reinforces the perception that Burma’s government and military are colluding to cover up the full extent of atrocities. Furthermore, the United States and others must amplify relief efforts to Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state and Bangladesh, whose government has graciously received this friendless and stateless community. Also, international stakeholders should reconsider interactions with Burma’s military, and should consider punitive actions as appropriate.
Religion is not the sole driving force behind state and societal persecution of Rohingya Muslims. However, they are singled out as different and perceived as a threat, in part, because of their religious and ethnic identity. Dismissing or ignoring religion’s role does a real disservice to the individuals whose mosques have been burned to the ground, who do not have regular access to an imam because of mass displacement, or who find it challenging to pray in the muddy refugee camp quagmires to which they have fled.
There is no shortage of human rights abuses occurring at present in Rakhine state and to other religious and ethnic minorities elsewhere in the country. But for the Rohingya Muslims remaining in Burma and those who have fled, the problem is horrifyingly dire. It is a call to action not just as a humanitarian crisis, but as a crisis of humanity.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect USCIRF positions or opinions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar goes back many years. Please visit the following Berkley Center resources to learn more about the history and context of the current violence: