The Right To Exist

Alina Besalel, Staff Writer

The United Nations has acknowledged the Rohingya population of Myanmar (pronounced “Burma”), a primarily Buddhist nation, as one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in existence. The government of their country, conversely, will not acknowledge Rohingya at all.

“To the Burmese* government, the Rohingya Muslims do not exist,” Rabbi Josh Rabin, Director of Kehilla (Community) Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said in a sermon for the American Jewish World Service.

Those Rohingya who refuse to erase their identities are forced either to flee the country or live in apartheid-like conditions in brutal internally displaced persons camps. To limit their population, the government is restricting marriage and birth rates and forcibly displacing over 300,000 Rohingya, according to Genocide Watch. Burma has enforced limits on the Rohingya people’s access to education, healthcare, and even basic resources. 80 percent of the Rohingya population live in northern Rakhine, isolated from the rest of the country by a large mountain range. Young Rohingya are dragged off of the streets and beaten harshly by border guards and soldiers with no justification. Vigilante mobs of angry Buddhist Rakhine citizens killed up to 300 Rohingya and displaced up to 140,000 from their homes (Mint Press) in widespread, systematic attacks during June and Oct. 2012.

In order to receive citizenship, the Burmese government demands that all Rohingya declare themselves to be of another ethnic background, and there is no option for self-identification as Rohingya on the country’s census. This is significant because the proportion of individuals in a certain group on the Burmese census also shows authorities how government supplies and services need to be distributed across the country to maximize impact. Rabin notes that preventing a group’s self-identification in the country’s census is denying their existence on a national level.

The government of Myanmar is well aware of its ethical failings, and is taking measures to prevent the pursual of government-sanctioned police brutality against the Rohingya people. Rohingya in internment camps are forced by government officials to bury their dead in mass graves, which makes it extremely difficult to prosecute individual acts of violence by the police and military forces against Rohingya Muslims, and prevents the observance of proper Islamic burial rites, stripping the Rohingya of dignity and humanity even after death.

The systematic ethnic cleansing that began in Rakhine is spreading unrest and cultural tensions across all of Myanmar. President Obama gave a speech in 2012 while visiting Myanmar, calling the government-sanctioned violence against innocent Burmese citizens inexcusable and warning those responsible that they were on the wrong side of history.

With such blatant and violent Islamophobia taking over the country of Myanmar, Muslim students in Chantilly feel the impacts of fear and stigma based off of their religious beliefs.

“People downgrade me when they know my religion like they expect Muslims to be uneducated,” junior Misha Amjad said. “It’s really not just about Islam, it’s about the traditions and controversies behind it. I lived in Kuwait and over there it wasn’t really about religion, but people still saw foreign nationalities as inferior.”

Amjad recounted individual events of discrimination where others treated her differently because of her religion.

“Once when it was Ramadan season, my fast broke at the time of prayer and the restaurant was closing up. A waiter had water in his hands and I offered to pay for some, and he said no. I couldn’t eat [for another three hours] until I got home.”

While prejudice against Islam persists on a global level, even amidst the extreme abuses of the Rohingya people by a government that should be protecting them there is the hope of a more tolerant future. The smallest positive changes in the perceptions of other cultures can affect change, and it starts with us.

“There’s a lot of diversity at Chantilly and we’re getting more education not to treat people differently,” Amjad said. “We see people under their skin. We take them as friends [regardless of] their religion or what they look like.”