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Did you know that after Christians, Muslims rank second as the religious group suffering the most harassment and discrimination by governments and societies around the world? According to a Pew study, Muslims are targeted in 142 countries. That high ranking stems in part from Muslims commonly being under attack by nationalist political parties or by anti-immigrant groups opposed to the influx of Muslim refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. But in Myanmar, hostility against Muslims has historic roots and is wide-spread today with tragic consequences.
Most Muslims in Rakhine state of the western part of the country are called Rohingya. The history of their very presence in the area is disputed. Many Rohingya claimed to have come to Rakhine centuries ago when Burma was part of the British Empire. But many Buddhists (who make up over 80% of the population) view the Rohingya as recent irregular migrants from neighboring Bangladesh who compete for scarce resources and thus should be expelled.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship by the Myanmar government. Considered “stateless,” they face restrictions on their ability to own any property, get an education or a job, vote, move about, marry, and even have children. In 2012, the rape and death of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by a Rohingya and the subsequent killing of 10 Rohingya men led to riots. Violence escalated against the Rohingya. They fled on overcrowded boats to Malaysia and Indonesia, and across the border into Thailand and Bangladesh. Many of those remaining in Rakhine were internally displaced, confined to squalid camps with limited access to food and services like health care.
In 2016, after some Rohingya attacked military border posts, things got worse. The Myanmar military and extremist Buddhists responded with a scorched earth policy against the whole Rohingya population, raping, killing, and burning villages, calling them anti-terrorist “clearance operations.” The United Nations called these military crackdowns on the Rohingya “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
Over 741,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh where they live in overcrowded refugee camps, dependent on international assistance, including from groups such as Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Bangladesh that struggle to provide emergency shelter, living supplies, water and sanitation in the face of such overwhelming need.
From the perspective of Bangladesh and other Asian nations that have taken in large numbers of Rohingya, there is understandably a desire that the Rohingya return to Myanmar, as their presence puts an enormous strain on local infrastructure and services. Bangladesh, a poor country prone to devastating annual floods, is ill-equipped to handle such a massive migration of refugees. But the Rohingya should only be encouraged to return if such returns are voluntary and if their safety, security and livelihoods can be guaranteed. Thus far, no such guarantees are forthcoming.
Meanwhile, USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), with the help of local U.S. Catholic Charities partners, has been resettling refugees fleeing religious persecution from Myanmar for over a decade. MRS’ recent fact-finding report provides background on the Rohingya and other internally displaced people and refugees from Myanmar throughout Southeast Asia.
The Rohingya are not the only minorities that face difficulties in Myanmar. Other ethnic groups, such as the Kachin, Shan, and Chin, many of whom are Christian, have had long-standing disputes with the Myanmar government, long dominated by a military eager to control the mineral rich lands of these minorities. Over the years, these ethnic groups have been attacked, their property and assets seized, and many have been internally displaced while others have fled to China, Thailand, and Malaysia.
In March 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution expressing grave concerns over human rights violations occurring in Myanmar and called on the military “to end immediately violence and all violations of international law,” particularly in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. In May 2019, a UN fact-finding team recommended that key military leaders be prosecuted for carrying out genocide against the Rohingya.
The Catholic Church has been very active in advocating for dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims to resolve conflicts and has been providing substantial humanitarian assistance to ethnic groups, including the Rohingya. Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon has promoted inter-faith dialogue, reconciliation, and peace-building.
Pope Francis visited Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017. He met with Buddhist leaders and called for unity “to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred.” Drawing on the words of the Buddha and St. Francis, he prayed that “wisdom continue to inspire every effort to foster patience and understanding and to heal the wounds of conflict that through the years have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities, and religious convictions.”
During Religious Freedom Week, pray for Rohingya and other religious minorities in Myanmar who are suffering. Stand in solidarity with Muslims and protect their religious freedom because by doing so, we protect the rights of all people and build bridges of understanding and communities to counter intolerance and violence.
Virginia Farris is Policy Advisor in the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace.
Matthew Wilch is Refugee Policy Advisor in the USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.
* Note: The Union of Burma is the country’s original name. In 1989, the military junta changed the name to “Myanmar.” The United States, the UK, other countries, and most resettled refugees from the country continue to use the name “Burma” while the United Nations and many Asian nations use “Myanmar.” In this blog, we follow Pope Francis in using “Myanmar.”
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