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Nowhere to Call Home

In May 2018, a U.N. Security Council delegation visited Burma’s Rakhine State, where more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted ethnic minority group, have fled military-led violence. The visit is a step in the right direction, but more must be done.

Article by Jieun Pyun May 10, 2018 //   5 minute read

In early May 2018, a United Nations Security Council delegation visited Burma’s Rakhine State, where more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted ethnic minority group, have fled military-led violence. The delegation met with the country’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Long subjected to discrimination and isolation in a predominantly Buddhist country, most Rohingya are denied citizenship, and the Rohingya are excluded from the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled military-led violence in Burma's Rakhine State since August 2017. (Photo credit: Shutterstock.com)

Since August 2017, the Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh to escape killings, sexual violence, and dire living conditions. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized by the international community for her inaction in the face of this humanitarian crisis. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, considered the most powerful person in Burma and widely perceived as being responsible for the violence against the Rohingya, holds constitutional power to control 25 percent of parliamentary seats and the powerful Defense and Home Affairs Ministries.  

While the U.N. Security Council visit was a step in the right direction, more must be done.  

Labeled as one of the fastest growing refugee crises, the Rohingya are living in camps with little access to safe drinking water, food, shelter, or healthcare. There is also growing concern as monsoon season descends upon the region. Heavy rains and mudslides will destroy the plastic and bamboo shelters and bring widespread water-borne illnesses, worsening a desperate situation.

Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian monitoring group, collected satellite imagery of Rakhine State in February, which shows at least 362 Rohingya villages have been partially or totally destroyed since August 2017. The U.N. and other international agencies have attempted to gain access to Rakhine State to investigate and provide aid, but until recently, have been turned away by the military and government. 

An unknown number of Rohingya remain in Rakhine, living in fear with limited freedom. Despite residing in Burma for generations, they are denied citizenship and treated as illegal immigrants. The Rohingya are unable to travel to neighboring villages, partake in formal education, engage in basic economic activities, receive medical treatment, or visit family.

So how can Burma move forward given these circumstances?

Aung Kyaw Moe with President and Mrs. Bush and Klaus Desmet, Professor of Economics at SMU, at the Bush Center's Forum on Leadership.

Burma’s Rohingya leaders, like Liberty and Leadership Program (LLP) alumnus Aung Kyaw Moe, must play an active role in the repatriation process, and humanitarian agencies must be given full access to Rakhine. Without granting citizenship to the Rohingya and ending their segregation, Aung Kyaw Moe says the cycle of human rights abuses will continue.

A Rohingya who grew up in Rakhine State, Aung Kyaw Moe fled his childhood home at the age of 19 in search of a better life. Because he is Rohingya, he is prohibited from returning to Rakhine. Upon graduating from the Bush Institute’s LLP in 2017, he founded a non-governmental organization called the Center for Social Integrity (CSI) to provide humanitarian assistance to those who are suffering. In less than a year, CSI has helped more than 135,000 people, many of whom are Rohingya. Two of Aung Kyaw Moe’s fellow 2017 LLP graduates support CSI’s efforts as board members.

The United States and other democratic friends of Burma must stay engaged, including continuing to develop leaders. Initiatives like the LLP are vital to preparing Burma’s next generation to guide their country’s successful democratic transition.   

As Aung Kyaw Moe stated in his remarks at our recent Forum on Leadership, “The next generation of leaders in Burma has an extraordinary opportunity to take an active role in shaping the future. We do not have to live in a future decided by others. And I believe in the power of the next generation to lead Burma to a brighter future – where people are free, human rights are respected, and we live in a democratic society. That is my dream.”