Karim walks from his job at a hotel in Washington D.C. towards the Myanmar Embassy. He is a Rohingya from the Rakhine State of Myanmar (formerly Burma). He was born in 1982. He doesn’t have a document to prove where he is from, as the Myanmar government stopped issuing citizenship the year he was born.
At this moment, police surrounds their village in Sittwe District. His family cannot leave. Food is scarce. “Police can attack them, any time,” Karim tells me, as the Jummah prayers complete in front of the embassy in D.C.
Many more of his people, 400,000 by some estimates, are hiding in the mountains and forests. The Burmese Army burnt entire villages to the ground. Women are systematically being raped, children beheaded. In less than two week, more than half a million people have been displaced.
Hundred of thousands have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh— their arrival documented by the Burma Task Force, an advocacy organization. They cannot return as the Myanmar army has laid landmines at the border– preventing others from escaping. The pogrom eviscerating the most persecuted people in the world comes in steady, calculated waves.
The horror is so intense at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh that South African imam, Shaykh Junaid Kharsany, says he and his entire relief team needs trauma counseling. They are seasoned aid workers and frequent visitors to refugee camps around the world but these stories of brutality are beyond extreme.
12 Nobel Prize Laureates highlighted these observations in a letter to the United Nations Security Council. The international community has urged Burmese civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to raise her voice against the atrocities, to deafening silence.
“They gave her a Nobel Prize, she committed genocide,” chanted disenchanted Code Pink human rights activists in front of the Embassy, who rallied for decades for Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. Suu Kyi, who as Myanmar's state counselor, claimed “misinformation” about the Rohingya crisis was being distributed to benefit "terrorists."
A report by the Arkan Rohingya Union, an umbrella group for Rohingya organizations from around the world, has also asked for sanctions against Myanmar. They call what is happening to their people genocide.
The United Nations’ top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has accused Myanmar of carrying out “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims.
The line between the two terms is often horrifyingly unclear, although the UN recognizes them as two separate crimes. Ethnic cleansing is considered a crime against humanity, while intent of total eradication plays a huge part in the definition of genocide.
“They want to drive us off and make it only a Buddhist country,” says Karim, who has lived with persecution all his life. The capital of Rakhine State, Sittwe, which once had a bustling Muslim population is now “Muslim-free”. A new deep port is being built with the help of the Indian government and the area is set for economic growth. A transnational pipeline built by China National Petroleum Company connecting Sittwe to Kunming, China, began operations in September 2013. Coastal areas of Rakhine State are of strategic importance to both India and China.
Government is planning to drive out the Muslim Rohingya from the country, observes Karim. “Since 2012 we have been living like this. They implemented martial law. We used to be able to do business, but no more,” says Karim. “They try to make a fight between Rakhine Buddhists and us with propaganda. I have seen this with my eyes. Before that we use to live in peace with them,” he adds.
“This time is very terrible,” his voice quivers.
To calm the hate spread against Muslims by extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar— Ashin Wirathu is one— the spiritual leader of Tibet, Dalai Lama told journalists in India, that those who were persecuting Rohingya “should remember Buddha”. The Buddha “would definitely give help to those poor Muslims,” the Dalai Lama said, reports the New York Times.
Not allowed to move, to get married, stripped of all rights, the persecution forced Kareem’s parents to urge their sons to leave Rakhine State. “Since I was a child I only remember persecution,” he tells the Muslim Link.
As a young child he would attend school with his Buddhist classmates. “Even my teacher would not want to teach me in school,” he recalls. Regular taunts included racial (Rahingya are darker skinned than other Burmese) and “You are not a citizen,” leaving him with deep feelings of alienation. His family concluded that the boys were not safe and urged them to take the perilous journey out of Myanmar. He was only 19 when he left.
“I left in 2001- I ran away to Thailand, then Malaysia, and finally United States,” says Karim. The brothers found “boat people” and paid money to an agent. After living in Malaysia for 12 years, where he was on temporary refugee status, Karim received a refugee visa through the United Nations and arrived in the US.
“We would pray for help from Allah and hope that maybe some Muslim country can help us,” says Karim, who did not want to disclose his last name. “We just cry and pray everyday. Allah help[ed] me and I am here.”
His elderly mother is still in Rakhine. “If they attack suddenly, where will she go?” he wonders helplessly. He is not there to carry her to safety like the young men whose videos are being shared by journalists on messenger services. All he can do is take part in protests like one in front of the Embassy of Myanmar or speak at rallies such as the Maryland Unity Rally for Rohingya, arranged by local activists and sponsored by all major Islamic centers and Muslim councils in Maryland.
Dr Wakar Uddin is the chair of the Arakan Rohingya Union- recognized under the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He has just submitted a report to the OIC about the arrests, torture, and execution of Rohingya civilians by the Myanmar police and Buddhist Rakhine militia.
“As we stand here, genocide is taking place,” he said at the Maryland Unity rally at Diyanet Center of America. He called for a safe zone for Rohingya and a multinational force to safe guard them. “It is past the ethnic cleansing stage.” Many in the international community have hesitated to call it genocide for diplomacy purposes but it has “clearly surfaced” now, he said. He wants to see the formal recognition of the Rohingya as a minority in Myanmar and the provision of humanitarian aid. The UN says that it is not allowed to serve food, water, and medicine to about 400,000 other Rohingya people who have fled to mountains and forest within Burma to avoid prosecution.
“[I] just call on the phone; I never was able to go back.” He listens to them cry. He is still able to send money but they cannot buy food- they cannot eat. “They dont need to be killed with guns, they will starve them to death.”
“We feel so helpless- when we try to speak up they shoot us. They have been planning this since 1962,” states Karim.
The Rohingya are indigenous people of Burma living in their ancestral lands. Their citizenship was revoked in 1982 by a military regime and they are called “Bengali” immigrants.
“What was in Burma? Why would want to come here?” he asked incredulously. For centuries the Rohingya have lived in these lands. Arakan coins minted by Shams al-din Muhammad Ghazi, sultan of Bengal, dating back to 15 century, stating the kalima, are a part of the history. Karim says his great grandparents were born in Burma.
“How can we not be citizens of our own land?” he asks. “We don’t have a [formal] identity.”
In Malaysia, a nine member international tribunal is currently hearing a genocide case against the government of Myanmar in regards to the Rohingyas, Kachins and other minority groups in Myanmar.