SAN FRANCISCO – Among the crowds gathered at the University of San Francisco to greet Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi last week was a small coterie of ethnic Muslim Burmese. They were there not to celebrate the visit by the veteran human rights activist but to press her on one burning question.
“So far, no one is speaking up for the Rohingyas, not even Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Shaik Ubaid, co-founder of the Burma Task Force. “Our goal is to increase awareness about this issue, to highlight the human rights abuses in Burma and to pressure the US and Burma government into action.”
The Burma Task Force is a collaboration of about 25 organizations – including Burmese activists, civil rights and Islamic groups – based in the United States. It was formed shortly after reports emerged of atrocities committed against the minority Rohingya by ethnic Burmese in Myanmar’s (Burma’s official name) northwestern Rakine State this past June.
Ubaid’s group organized a 100 city rally coinciding with Suu Kyi’s 17-day tour of the United States. During her visit to the Bay Area, the University of San Francisco awarded her an honorary doctorate, one of many overdue accolades she received while on tour.
Suu Kyi, chairperson for Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy, spent more than 15 years under house arrest for her promotion of human rights and democracy under the country’s ruling military junta. She was released in 2010 and elected to Myanmar’s lower house in April of 2012.
Her landmark U.S. visit had been highly anticipated and was deemed unlikely just a few years ago, and while she received a mostly warm welcome here, local Rohingya like Ubaid are frustrated by her silence on this one issue.
“The Rohingyas are called the most persecuted people in the world,” Ubaid explained, “and yet there’s no sense of urgency to make things right for them … most surprising was Suu Kyis timid and vague response 2 months after the riots calling for ethnic equality.”
Tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have left scores dead, with tens of thousands of Rohingya left homeless and displaced. Myanmar refuses to recognize its estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims as an ethnic group and denies them citizenship. Many Burmese consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“They are marked, they were rendered ‘outsiders’ even before the 1982 law that took away their citizenship,” said Raafay Mohammed, West Coast organizer for the Burma Task Force. According to the law, citizens must prove their ancestry in the country dating back to 1823, something most Rohingya are unable to do given long-standing discriminatory practices denying them valid identification.
Ubaid echoed speculation that Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to take a stand on the Rohingya is tied to upcoming elections in Myanmar in 2015. “She does not want to lose the majority Buddhist vote,” he said, “a population currently at odds with the Rohingyas.”
Mohammed warned that inaction now could lead to more violence. He pointed to recent rioting involving Bangladeshi Muslims in Myanmar, who burned down several Buddhist temples and homes in retaliation for the posting of a Facebook image depicting a burned Koran.
“So far we have held rallies in 46 cities in the United States. We need to do more otherwise this can worsen,” he said. “All we want is for the abuse, the displacement to stop.”