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COMMENTARY: Rohingya Crisis is Just the Tip of a Dark Iceberg

Villagers fleeing fighting between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army arrive in Namti town, Kachin State, in April. / Kachin Baptist Convention

During a recent trip to the United States, an American told me how she used to have a good relationship with her Burmese neighbors, who had lived in New York for a long time. However, the family stopped talking to her after she tried to raise the Rohingya issue with them, she said.

This was a story of a divided neighborhood overseas. But, there are many more such divided neighborhoods in Myanmar.

The international community has been well informed about the human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar Army against the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine. There is much sympathy for the the Rohingya, which fled en masse to Bangladesh after the Myanmar Army launched a massive military sweep in the west of the state last year.

The international community is considering how it can help the Rohingya regain their human dignity as equals based on human rights. It cannot accept how the Tatmadaw has treated them, burned their houses, tortured, arrested and put many of them in prison. All human beings should be treated equally – that is the view of the international community.

During my one-week visit, I gave some public talks about the decline of press freedom in Myanmar. I met US State Department officials and some members of Congress to brief them about how press freedoms in the country have been curtailed.

U.S. government officials and members of Congress are generally well informed about the political situation in Myanmar, and were happy to listen to our stories about how press freedom is increasingly being restricted. They even asked what they could do to help boost media freedoms in the country. They said the U.S. government was not happy to see the political situation in Myanmar deteriorating and expressed a desire to see it move forward under the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who gained international recognition and a Nobel Peace prize for her long pro-democracy struggle.

But people asked me most about the Rohingya.

I was surprised to meet one member of Congress who just seemed to want us to listen to him talk about the Rohingya, instead of listening to our accounts of the state of press freedom. He seemed to think that if the Myanmar government gave full citizenship to the Rohingya, then all their problems would be solved.

I told him about a case I came across at a refugee camp in Myae Pone Township in Rakhine State. There were some Rohingya there who had been granted full citizenship cards, but they still could not leave the camp. It did not matter what cards they possessed. The more important thing, I told him, was that they had the freedom to travel and work. We spent about 40 minutes talking about the Rohingya, and did not get the chance to bring up the issue of media rights with him.

There are ongoing investigations by different U.S. government departments about rights abuses committed by the Myanmar Army against the Rohingya. Washington has vowed to target certain Army and government officials with sanctions, based on the recommendations of the different government departments.

The Rohingya crisis is one of the biggest international issues today. Yet, there are other issues in Myanmar, especially in Kachin State, where fighting has been raging for almost two months. There are 150,000 Kachin IDPs who have had to flee their homes due to the fighting and amid widespread reports of human rights abuses by the Myanmar Army.

The Myanmar Army’s actions against the ethnic Kachin are not much different to what it has done to the Rohingya. But most normal civilians from the international community know very little about the six-decade long civil war between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic rebel groups in the country.

The ethnic groups have suffered many different types of abuses at the hands of the Myanmar Army, and they want the international community to know their situation is not dissimilar to that of the Rohingya. It is time is to bring the two issues together. Both the Rohingya and the ethnic groups have been targets of human rights abuses. But while the international community talks about one, it seems to ignore the other.


(c) 2018 The Irrawaddy

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