When I visited the makeshift camps for Rohingya refugees on the Bangladesh-Burma border, I made up my mind there and then that I would not rest until their plight received the attention it needs and deserves.
In all my travels to places of poverty, conflict and oppression, I don’t think I have seen human misery on such a scale. It was wet season and the rain seeped through the ground and dripped through the roof of every shack. Children were malnourished, some chronically, and the sick were dying with no access to medical care. Teenagers were teaching younger kids, because there was no schooling available. They told me that they themselves should still be in education, but there were no opportunities for them and so they shared their limited knowledge with those younger than them.
Fear and despair haunted the eyes of most people I met, as they told me that they were a people “at the brink of extinction”. Despite having lived in northern Arakan state, Burma, for generations, they said that Burma’s regime does not regard them as citizens. “The Burmese tell us ‘you are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh’. The Bangladeshis tell us, ‘you are Burmese, go back to Burma’. We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake.”
For pure humanitarian reasons, I believe it is not only morally right, but imperative, to speak up for the beleaguered Rohingya. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ranks them among the ten people groups around the world most at risk of extinction. They are in urgent need of humanitarian help and advocacy.
However, I believe it is also in our interests to help the Rohingya. It is in the interests of all the people of Burma to include and involve and welcome the Rohingya as full and equal citizens and as allies in the democracy movement. Burma cannot be a true democracy, respectful of human rights, if when the time comes for freedom, the Rohingya continue to be denied citizenship, marginalised, oppressed and alienated. Freedom for Burma must mean freedom for all its people. Human rights are universal if they are to mean anything.
As a Christian, I believe first and foremost that my faith teaches me to speak out for the oppressed, of whatever religious or racial background. My compassion can never be restricted to helping fellow Christians. However, there are occasions when my fellow Christians, among the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni for example, need help. I documented their plight in my report Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma. When it was published, my Rohingya friends issued a statement endorsing the report, and spoke at the launch event. They, the Muslim Rohingyas, stood in solidarity with the Christian Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni. In an age of extremism, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated conflict around the world, that spirit of solidarity is a powerful inspiration. They were there when my fellow Christians needed a voice; it is right, therefore, that I should be there for them. Religious freedom is indivisible – if one group wants the right to practice their faith peacefully, they must champion that right for all.
I once asked a Rohingya friend whether there was a risk of the Rohingya Muslims being radicalised. With a book of Martin Luther King’s speeches in his hands, he nodded gravely. Yes, he said. “If our people continue to be persecuted by the regime, sidelined by the democracy movement and ignored by the rest of the world, and if radical Islamists come and offer help, there is a risk that our people will be influenced by that and turn to extremism.” That, surely, is reason enough to reach out to the Rohingya, for the last thing Burma needs right now, on top of all its other woes, is rising militant Islamism.
So for all these reasons, primarily the humanitarian need, I have been working for the Rohingya. I produced a report on my visit to the Bangladesh-Burma border, I have arranged briefings for Members of Parliament, and drafted parliamentary questions to raise the plight of the Rohingya in parliament. In November 2008, I took three Rohingya to Brussels, to brief members of the European Parliament, Commission and Council. And earlier this month, Maung Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), and I, travelled to Washington DC.
In Washington DC we spoke at a briefing in the US congress, met officials in the state department, and talked with staff of various senators and congressmen. We had half an hour with congressman Joseph Pitts, and – most significantly – an hour and a half with congressman Chris Smith. These two men are both committed Christians, and champions of human rights and religious freedom. Both were unaware of the plight of the Rohingyas, but when they heard about the grinding, dehumanising treatment they face at the hands of the regime – restrictions on movement, marriage, access to education, and freedom of religion – they were deeply moved.
Congressman Smith is tabling the first ever resolution focused on the Rohingya in the US congress as a result. The resolution urges the junta to restore the Rohingya citizenship status, calls for the US government to provide assistance, and recommends the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity, including in northern Arakan.
People have commented on the inter-faith collaboration shown by Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Rohingya working together. Personally, I long for a day when such collaboration is unremarkable. In an era of religious extremism and intolerance, those of us who are motivated by our faith tradition to be voices of freedom, peace and human rights should work together. In Burma, that is particularly needed.
Division, whether on religious, ethnic or political lines, has hindered the struggle. Burmans, Arakanese and others need to recognise that their enemy is not the Rohingya, and that in fact with the Rohingya together they have a common enemy: the regime. One Rohingya leader told me that his vision is for Burma to be a beautiful garden, in which different flowers with different colours grow side by side in the same soil – individual, distinct, unique, but united. So I urge every Christian and every Buddhist to speak out for all the people of Burma, including the Rohingya, who desperately need a voice.
Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (Monarch, 2004). His new book, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, is published by Silkworm Books this month.