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When You Say ‘Never Again,’ Remember the Rohingya

Sep 18, 2020

Blog Post

Naomi Steinberg (HIAS) and Lilach Shafir (AJWS)

Terrorized in their native Myanmar, nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees crammed into camps like this one outside Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

(Courtesy UN Women Asia and the Pacific.Flickr Commons)

This op-ed was originally published in the New York Jewish Week. 

The soldiers arrived armed and filled with evil; a small number of their intended victims were able to flee across the river and into the trees, where they watched the massacre unfold. Men separated from women, then gunned down. Women raped, then shot. Babies tossed into rushing waters. Mass graves; the entire village of Tula Toli erased from the map. And not just Tula Toli, but village, after village, after village.

The images of the Burmese military systematically slaughtering the Rohingya people in August 2017 are all too horrifyingly familiar to Jewish people, as we hold painful memories of our own genocide. The subsequent refugee crisis feels achingly familiar, too — today there are more Rohingya people living in camps outside their homeland than those remaining in Burma (Myanmar).

Which raises the question: How can it be — decades after Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Holocaust itself — that these horrors are not just a tragic chapter in humanity’s past, but a daily part of our present? How is it that the global community has not yet turned “never again” from a rallying cry into a reality?

Three years after the Rohingya people were forced to flee a genocide at the hands of the Burmese military to refugee camps in Bangladesh, American Jews can rally by demanding that the U.S. lead the international community in defending the Rohingya and working to ensure their full rights.

The events of August 2017 were neither a military clash nor a one-off paroxysm of violence, but nothing less than genocide – a genocide now compounded by the failure of the world community to take sufficient action in its wake. In 2017, of course, there was immediate outrage – but that outrage has waned, even as the Burmese military and government’s decades-long campaign continues. Outrage has waned even as Burmese army deserters admitted last week they had orders to slaughter Rohingya — in their words, to “shoot all you see and all you hear.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people are living on a knife’s edge, lacking full rights and suffering horrendous living conditions. Just this past week, a ship with over 300 Rohingya refugees was rescued off Indonesia, after six months stranded at sea.

For decades, the Rohingya people, a Muslim and ethnic minority in predominantly Buddhist Burma, have been unrecognized, stateless, absent the protections of those who can claim citizenship of a sovereign nation. Even their most basic human rights are severely restricted, leaving them unable to work, worship, or travel from village to village as they wish. And this pattern of persecution in Burma is not unique to the Rohingya people, as many ethnic minorities around the country also face systematic violence from the central state as well as pressure to abandon their languages and cultures.

When more than 740,000 Rohingya people fled three years ago, they made their way to one of the poorest corners of Bangladesh, joining more than 300,000 other Rohingya refugees who had fled persecution in decades past; the camps in southeastern Bangladesh are now, collectively, the largest in the world.

At its core, the Rohingya story is that of religiously and ethnically motivated genocide; by virtue of our own history, the American Jewish community has a responsibility to demand that the world neither ignore that truth, nor allow it to continue.

Together HIAS and AJWS are part of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network (JRJN), a consortium of 28 Jewish NGOs, including representatives of all four major branches of American Judaism, formed in the wake of the 2017 massacres.  As we mark the anniversary of those shocking events, and even as the global community struggles with challenges we could never have anticipated three years ago, we call for renewed efforts to recognize the horrors visited on the Rohingya, and defend the rights of those living as refugees as well as those who remain inside Burma.

Three years after this mass exodus, and decades after the escalation of their persecution, the Rohingya people face pressing needs in the here and now. The U.S. must lead the international community in demanding that Burma restore citizenship to the Rohingya people and ensure that upcoming Burmese elections, scheduled for Nov. 8, are free and fair and allow Rohingya participation; put a stop to efforts to relocate refugees from Bangladesh to an island in the Bay of Bengal; and ensure robust funding to safeguard decent living conditions in the camps, not least of which is the refugees’ battle against Covid-19.

This must begin with a clear-eyed acknowledgement of what the Rohingya have endured: We call on the State Department to formally designate Burma’s murderous campaign against the Rohingya people a genocide. Such designation will not be difficult to establish: A U.N. independent fact-finding mission established in 2019 that there was “a pattern of conduct that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State to destroy the Rohingya, in whole or in part, as a group,” adding that “the State of Myanmar continues to harbor genocidal intent and the Rohingya remain under serious risk of genocide.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum concurs, having determined that there is “compelling evidence that the Burmese military committed ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Rohingya.”

Even as we struggle with our own challenges here in the U.S., we must not forget that an entire people and culture faces extermination.

Now, in the month of Elul, Jews are asked to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We ask ourselves especially timely questions  – what have we done in the past year for the oppressed and suffering? Specifically, how do we commit to acting in 5781 to support the Rohingya people?

We invite the entire American-Jewish community to join the powerful Jewish movement for justice for the Rohingya people. And we call on our nation’s leadership to do all that is within our power to defend the Rohingya people from Burma’s efforts to, very simply, eliminate them from the face of the Earth. Our Jewish history — our Jewish voice — empowers us to continue to stand in solidarity with the Rohingya people.

Naomi Steinberg is Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at HIAS. Lilach Shafir is Director of International Education and Jewish Engagement at American Jewish World Service.