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President Obama, Just Say 'Rohingya'

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From flickr.com/photos/69583224@N05/14224922538/: Myanmar's Rohingya: uncertain future
Myanmar's Rohingya: uncertain future
(image by EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)

It is extremely rare for the international community to be able to recognize and stop genocide before it occurs. But for Burma's Rohingya, it's not too late.

The precursors to genocide are loud and clear for the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from Rakhine state in western Burma who have been deemed "one of the most persecuted groups on Earth." There is a great risk of a genocide unfolding for the 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma.

The Rohingya are suffering vicious attacks and systematic abuse by Burma's government. They have been denied rights to work, travel, education, access medical care and even marry and have children. Rohingya live in what many describe as "concentration camps" today, where they have been denied their rights to work, travel, education, medical care, food, clean water, security and even marry.

The government of Burma denies their existence. Past military governments focusing on promoting a singular Buddhist and Burmese identity and in 1982, Burma's military junta implemented the Citizenship Act, which reclassified the Rohingya as "foreign residents" and rendered them stateless. The Rohingya were also excluded from the census earlier this year. The sentiment of Burma's government is clear. According to Burma's President Thein Sein, "There are no Rohingya among the races [in Burma]."

The dire situation for the Rohingya is escalating. Burma's government says that it is now offering a plan for them to become citizens through the Rakhine State Action Plan. However, this plan offers the Rohingya the bleak choice between being indefinite detention or reclassification as "Bengali", a pejorative and inaccurate label that implies the Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh when they have lived in Burma's Rakhine state for generations. The Rakhine State Action Plan essentially proposes permanent segregation and statelessness for the Rohingya.

Burma's government is not only denying the existence of the Rohingya, but is also pressuring the United States and the rest of the world to do the same. Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, stated that she "was repeatedly told not to use the term 'Rohingya' as this was not recognized by the Government."

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With 140,000 Rohingya living in camps and 100,000 more who have fled the country by boat, it is important to not only recognize these precursors to genocide, but to act on them.

President Barack Obama has the opportunity to do so now while he is in Burma this week for a regional economic summit. Tomorrow he will sit down with Burma's President Thein Sein. He must deliver a clear message to President Thein Sein that crimes of genocide will not go unpunished if he fails to not only recognize the Rohingya but give them the protection they desperately need.

This spring, President Obama said in a speech at West Point, "I believe we have a real stake -- an abiding self-interest -- in making sure our children grow up in a world where school-girls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren't slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs."

Now is his opportunity to make good on this pledge. "Rohingya" is not just a name; it is 1.3 million people and a culture at risk of being erased. They are counting on President Obama and the rest of the world to highlight their plight and prevent genocide in Burma.

Megan Madeira is an intern at United to End Genocide and a student at American University. Learn about the advocacy campaign for the Rohingya at Just Say Their Name.

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Megan Madeira is an intern at United to End Genocide, an organization dedicated to preventing and ending genocide and mass atrocities worldwide.

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President Obama, Just Say 'Rohingya'