Women at Risk: Plight of the Rohingya
Imagine spending your life savings in order to secure a boat ride to what you hope will be a better future in a new land. Then, after surviving the treacherous journey, you are rounded up, captured and assaulted by security forces as soon as you land ashore. Just when you think the nightmare is over, you are thrown back into the sea, left adrift to die. This is the grim reality for many of the Rohingya of Myanmar/Burma. Economic migration has become a regular facet of life for many of the world’s less affluent in the 21st century. Globalization has helped spur companies and employers to seek out cheaper sources of international labor and finance, and potential employees are traveling to new locales and nations seeking to secure a better life for themselves and their families.
This migration often leads to exploitation and human trafficking. Some Rohingya migrants end up being slave laborers and sex workers for human traffickers in Bangladesh and Thailand, rather than achieving their dream of a better life. While economic migration is among the reasons for Rohingya fleeing Burma, many report violence against their communities as the driving factor in their exodus.
Among the Most Persecuted
According to the United Nations, the Rohingya people are currently listed as being among the most persecuted and displaced populations on the planet. The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim community, exist as an oppressed ethnic minority in Burma, which is dominated by an Indian Buddhist population. Tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state can be traced back decades, to the British colonial rule of Myanmar in the early 20th century. It is estimated that over a million Rohingya are caught in a cycle of violence and poverty.
The Rohingya are viewed as a “stateless” people who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar based on a 30-year-old discriminatory law. Burmese authorities regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are often hostile toward their communities. The government’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya as citizens and give them identification papers makes their community more vulnerable to human trafficking. Over 30,000 Rohingya refugees are now living in aid camps in neighboring Bangladesh. The United Nations has appealed to world powers for $30 million in aid for the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. International calls for cessation of violence and discriminatory practices against the Rohingyan population have been made by countries, human rights organizations, and Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia.
On December 24, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 67/233 to focus attention on ongoing human rights abuses in Myanmar. The 2012 resolution expressed concern about “arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violations of international humanitarian law.” It called for the government of Burma to “ensure accountability and end impunity” for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The plight of the Rohingya was pushed into international media headlines when conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims reached deadly levels in June of 2012, known as the Rakhine state riots. Rakhine is home to 80 percent of Burma’s one million Rohingya. The surge of violence resulted from accusations that a Buddhist Rakhine woman was raped by three Rohingya Muslim men. The outbreak of sectarian violence in the northern state of Rakhine has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 100,000 residents, the burning of over 2,500 homes, and over 88 deaths.
Human rights watch groups have resoundingly declared a humanitarian crisis in Burma. Benjamin Zawacki of Amensty International comments, “This [Rohingya persecution] is truly systemic. It's part of Myanmar's legal and social system to discriminate against the Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity … all the facets of life are affected by a system that codifies and makes lawful their persecution and discrimination."
Women and Children Suffer the Most
As with any displaced and persecuted population, it is the women and children who often bear the brunt of the suffering and hardships. Many Rohingyan children have to endure hours of backbreaking labor in hazardous working conditions to help support their families. Government and military officials have shut down Muslim schools in the region, which has led to overpopulated government-run classrooms in which Rohingyan children are instructed in a foreign language they do not understand. Needless to say, the Rohingya in these classrooms receive little education.
The fate of many Rohingyan women is worse. Reports and allegations of rape and sexual abuse being carried out by Burmese security forces against Rohingyan women are becoming all too commonplace. “Sexual violence by Nasaka (Burmese border security) against Rohingya women has been documented for many years,” exclaims Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. He goes on to add that prosecution for rape rarely occurs against security forces. Rape victims are also ostracized or kicked out of their own communities for fear of retribution from security forces if the women seek legal aid.
Questioning the Transition
This is a stark and disturbing contrast to the supposedly democratic transitioning of the Burmese state, which has historically been known for its repressive military rule. Burma has recently received international praise and support from the United States and European Union in the form of lifted economic sanctions and billions of dollars in private investment following the Burmese military regime’s shift toward democratic and humanitarian reforms. However, many question if the military is really making any significant changes. Politician, humanitarian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has recently come under fire from supporters who claim she hasn’t done enough to protect the rights of villagers and farmers who had their land taken by the military. Elected to Burma’s lower house of parliament in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party has not garnered enough power to pressure the government to make any significant changes to its policies, and has been nearly silent on the issue.
Myanmar’s President, Thein Sein views deportation or refugee camps as the only solution to the Rohingya’s stateless status. The governmental response to the refugee crisis of the Rohingya in Rakine state has been described as “apartheid-like,” with most Rohingya being forced to live in squalid conditions in temporary camps. The Rohingya are mandated to stay in the camps for their own security until a permanent resettlement plan is devised.
This approach does little to protect the ethnic minority group or ensure them any type of functional future. The pressure to hold the Burmese government and military to its word on making democratic and humanitarian reforms must be increased by the international community. A June 2013 report released by a government-backed commission, which detailed the violent clashes in June and October of 2012, has received criticism from human rights watch organizations. They claim that the report focuses on taking greater security measures, rather than addressing the discrimination faced by the Rohingyans. Critics say the security forces are often complicit in the violence aimed against the Rohingya, and by imposing greater security measures the root of the problem remains unaddressed. “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” states Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asian director, Phil Robertson.
The Obama Administration Takes Initiative
In 2012, the Obama Administration took initiative and issued an Executive Order on Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally. The intended function of the order is to ensure U.S. agencies prioritize this issue in their implementation of foreign policy. The U.S. State Department has been monitoring the ethnic and sectarian clashes in Burma, has called for a cessation of all violent activities, and urges the Burmese government to “reach a peaceful resolution as soon as possible and to bring those responsible for the violence to justice in a timely manner and in accordance with due process.” The State Department has also stressed the importance of allowing aid agencies and NGO’s into neighboring countries such as Bangladesh to ensure human rights abuses do not take place in refugee camps. However, despite these messages, abuses are still occurring and the Rohingya are still living a tenuous day-to-day existence where the threats of hunger, violence, rape and kidnapping are ever present realities.
The latest U.S. Government Trafficking in Persons Report (2013) indicates that human trafficking by both government officials and private actors still remains a major problem in Burma. The report highlights some of the most heinous human trafficking reports, including one that alleges Burmese officials kidnapped Rohingya women from Sittwe and subjected them to sexual slavery on military installations. Forced labor of Rohingya men, women and children is documented in the report, and it cites the complicity of military, government and local officials in these exploitative activities. Cases such as these expose the vital need for the international community to put increased pressure on the Burmese government to truly implement reform and stop human trafficking. The TIP report recommends that the Burmese government 1) vigorously prosecute offenders of both labor and sex trafficking, especially military and government officials; 2) increase partnerships with local and international NGO’s to ramp up its efforts in victim identification and protections; and 3) crackdown on corruption and lack of accountability within military and police forces throughout Burma.
The United States Congress is set to reintroduce the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which was originally introduced in 2007 but has yet to be passed into law. Among other initiatives, the bill would place gender-based violence protections at the forefront of U.S. foreign assistance programs — a first for the United States. Other congressional initiatives such as H.J. RES 46 and H. RES. 418 seek to renew restrictions on imports to Burma and urge the Burmese government to heed international human rights warnings to end the persecution of the Rohingya.
You can act to help raise the alarm about the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya. In September 2013, sympathizing organizations and groups such as Forum for Democracy in Burma, Students and Youth Congress of Burma, Tavoyan Women's Union, and Investors Against Genocide submitted a joint letter to President Obama urging him to “require concrete, measurable progress on labor and land rights and environmental protection prior to reinstatement” of Burma’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. World leaders must be held accountable for these atrocities against humanity. To make that happen, we must speak with a resounding voice that condemns any actions that denigrate the humanity of Rohingya women and their families.
Forced labor and sexual slavery are two of the most common and destructive forms of human trafficking and we must not allow them to continue. Call your lawmakers (Congressional Switchboard: 202- 224-3121) and tell them to support H.J. RES. 46 and H. RES. 418—respectively approving the renewal of import restrictions to Burma and compelling the Burmese government to end the persecution of the Rohingya people. Tell your lawmakers to help human rights organizations like Investors Against Genocide in their opposition to the reinstatement of the Generalized System of Preferences for Myanmar’s government.
Raise your voice and contact your Congressional representative and tell them to support legislation that seeks to end violence against women, such as H.R. 3571 - International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) and H.R. 629 - Violence Against Immigrant Women Act (2013).
Monitor the United States Campaign for Burma. Visit to learn more about ways you can advocate for the Rohingyan cause and fight human trafficking.
Read “Global Migration and the Quest for Justice,” #6028, pages 731 – 741; and “Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide, and War Crimes,” #6150, pages 883 – 889, in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).
- H.R. 3571 - International Violence Against Women Act (2013) was introduced to the House of Representatives in November 21, 2013.
- The bill was introduced by Rep. Janice Schakowsky [D-IL] and currently has 29 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. It has since been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
- Passage of the bill would establish a U.S. Office of Global Women’s Issues, headed by an Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues.
- The Ambassador-at-large would be responsible for annually updating the U.S. global strategy for responding to violence against women and girls.
- The bill would also create a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
- Passing I-VAWA would help ensure that uniform data collection and accountability measures are in place to track international investments in programs that address gender-based violence.
- Visit Amnesty International’s webpage at: www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/international-violence-against-women-act to find out ways you can advocate for and support the passage of H.R. 3571 – International Violence Against Women Act (2013)