COMMENTARY: Speak Up for the Rohingya Before It’s Too Late

The Rohingya, a historically persecuted minority from Myanmar, are now threatened by signs of genocide.

Adrift in crewless ships on the Andaman Sea in southeast Asia, tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim minority fleeing persecution and violence, search for dry land and refuge. Their journey—sometimes lasting months—begins in Myanmar, a country where their plight has reached pre-genocidal proportions, according to the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. But sadly, few here in the U.S. are paying attention.

Rohingya (pronounced rōˈhinjə) have called the former British colony, also known as Burma, home for centuries, despite the inhospitable conditions they’ve historically lived under.

Under Myanmar’s constitution, Rohingya aren’t citizens. In fact, the current government denies their existence, classifying them as illegal migrants from nearby Bangladesh. For decades, many held government issued “white-cards”—a form of identification that provided access to limited social services and, at times, the right to vote. In February, that right was revoke, and on May 31 all “white-cards” were invalidated.

The majority of Mynamar’s one million Rohingya live in Rakhine State, located in western Myanmar. Unbridled violence erupted there in 2012, fueled by the killing of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya man. 

A modern-day Kristallnacht  followed, as roaming bands of Buddhists killed hundreds of Rohingya. Homes, businesses, and mosques were torched. Local law enforcement officials looked on as blood ran through the streets and smoke filled the air. Meanwhile, a radical Buddhist monk stoked the vitriol with speech that contradicted his placid appearance.

In fear for their lives, 140,000 Rohingya fled towards the southern part of Rakhine.

Responding to a burgeoning population of displaced persons, Myanmar’s government erected 21st Century concentration camps last year. Complete with amenities, like barbed wire, bamboo huts, open latrines, and sparse medical aid and sustenance, the camps underscore the Rohingya experience—an existence of isolation, depravity, and hopelessness.

In desperation, Rohingya now head for the open water, where human traffickers and turbulent waters threaten to drown their dreams of reaching safe harbor in places, like Malaysia and Indonesia. Myanmar is now banning the desperate from leaving lest the world hear their stories.

Rohingya have found little sympathy on land and sea, especially from individuals and governments that fight for and defend human dignity and freedom.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s opposition and a Nobel Peace laureate, remains largely silent on the Rohingya issue, despite entreaties by fellow laureates to end her reticence. And President Barack Obama has neglected to put enough pressure on Myanmar’s government to effectively change its behavior, despite the fruits of U.S. commerce that ripened after diplomacy was reestablished between the two countries in 2012.

An extension of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon-Skjodt center “is dedicated to stimulating timely global action to prevent genocide and to catalyze an international response when it occurs,” according to its website.

Andrea Gittleman, the center’s program manager, and a colleague traveled to Myanmar earlier this year, bearing witness to the tell-tale markers of an approaching genocide. Their observations became part of the center’s May 1 report, “Early Warning Signs of Genocide in Burma.”

The report enumerates much of the information shared in this piece, while calling upon the international community to take notice and for political leaders to wield their clout instead of wagging a finger.

After a century of genocide, one would think that images of loss humanity—Armenians on death marches, Jews led into Nazis gas chambers, blood-soaked rice fields in Cambodia, blindfolded and bound men and boys executed at Srebrenica, machete mutilated corpses in Kigali, and Darfuris fleeing janjaweed militiamen in western Sudan—would sear the memory, ignite the conscience to find its moral compass, and compel the body to act in order to save the Rohingya.

In an email Gittleman explained that the center’s report was sent to various human-rights organizations, as well as to U.S. government officials and agencies, including the U.S. Mission at the United Nations. And though she wrote that “the reaction to the report has been very strong and positive” among those who’ve received it, many Americans remain in the dark about an impending atrocity.

So what can be done? Read the report and take advantage of the democratic institutions denied to the Rohingya and speak up before it’s too late, explains Gittleman.

“Expressing to the people in power either through [the US] Congress or letter writing campaigns or any kind of efforts…that they [constituents] are watching and that they find the treatment of Rohingya to be unacceptable,” Gittleman said by telephone. She added, that US policy can make a difference in preventing an atrocity, but “additional pressure from ordinary people…is always helpful…” in reminding others that “the Rohingya are not forgotten.”

Contact information for our representatives:

Congressman Sam Farr
100 W. Alisal Street
Salinas, CA 93901
Phone: (831) 424-2229
Toll Free: 800-340-FARR
Fax: (831) 424-7099
email info:

Senator Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-3841
Fax: (202) 228-3954
TTY/TDD: (202) 224-2501
email info:

Senator Barbara Boxer
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
(202) 224-3553
email info:


Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.