This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
As Barack Obama makes an unprecedented second visit by a US president to Burma, the bad news just keeps rolling in. But he can still make the trip a success. Backsliding reforms, attacks on civilians and evidence of war crimes are among the troubling reports that came out just ahead of Obama’s visit. Harvard Law researchers have presented evidence of war crimes by high-level military officials in Kachin State. Human rights watchdog Fortify Rights released reports detailing attacks on civilians in Kachin State and the complicity of Burmese officials in trafficking Rohingya Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that the Burmese government is “unable or unwilling” to address attacks on Muslims and Christians. And Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi publicly decried the “stalling” of reforms, saying that the United States has at times been too optimistic about the reform process.
President Obama can hardly be caught by surprise by this wave of evidence of backsliding on reforms. In the two years since his first historic visit, some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have remained displaced in apartheid-like conditions, with the government making clear and deliberate decisions to make their living conditions worse. Earlier this year the government expelled Doctors Without Borders, the main source of health care for hundreds of thousands. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have fled the deplorable conditions in western Burma by boat since 2012, including 14,500 Rohingya in just the past three weeks.
Who Are the Rohingya?
An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya live in Burma—mostly in the western Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh, from which the first Rohingya came to Burma centuries ago.
As Muslims in a majority Buddhist country, they have faced decades of marginalization. The Burmese government considers the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” immigrants despite the fact that most were born in Burma and that many can trace roots there that go back for generations. A controversial 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of citizenship, making the Rohingya one of the largest stateless peoples in the world. Because past military governments have focused on promoting a singular Buddhist and Burmese identity, the Rohingya have become not only marginalized, but also isolated and demonized.