U.S. Calls On Myanmar To Grant Rohingya Citizenship
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About a thousand Rohingya Muslims have been resettled in the U.S. in the last year. More may be taken in to help ease a refugee crisis in Asia. But the State Department says the only real solution will come when Myanmar, also known as Burma, recognizes the Rohingya as citizens. This call has mainly fallen on deaf ears as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When assistant secretary of state, Anne Richard, attended a recent regional meeting to deal with the thousands of boat people fleeing hardship and persecution, the last thing she wanted to do was announce a big, new resettlement plan.
ANNE RICHARD: Because we were concerned that that would then create a pull factor to attract people to get on boats and make this very dangerous journey. So we intend to do our part, but we really believe that the solution for the Rohingya is that they be able to live peacefully inside Burma.
KELEMEN: Burma, or Myanmar, doesn't recognize the Rohingya and has forced many into internment camps.
RICHARD: It was one of the more oppressive atmospheres I have ever experienced in all my travels around the world. People do not have freedom of movement. Their kids are not in school. They can't practice their livelihoods, be that farming or fishing. They live in fear.
KELEMEN: The U.S. has sent numerous high-level envoys to Myanmar to press the government to give these people more rights. Michel Gabaudan, who runs the advocacy group Refugees International, says the U.S. messaging has been spot on.
MICHEL GABAUDAN: That being said, it hasn't had a lot of impact on the way the government of Myanmar has reacted to the Rohingya. I mean, their policies become tougher and tougher. Recently they've passed a law spacing the time a woman can have children, which is specific to the Muslims.
KELEMEN: There Rohingya, a Muslim minority, in largely Buddhist Myanmar have faced persecution for several decades. But the U.S. only recently got a window into this when it started normalizing ties with Myanmar 2011. Many in Washington assumed that improvement in relations would give the U.S. greater leverage says Cameron Hudson, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
CAMERON HUDSON: That assumption has frankly not borne fruit, right? We haven't seen that in reality. In fact, we've seen the government taking steps - despite all of the opening and the deepening of ties, we've seen them take steps in the opposite direction, which is to ratchet up the pressure and the violence on this community.
KELEMEN: If this were the only issue or the main priority in relations, the U.S. might consider sanctions or find other ways to get the international community more involved, he says. But Hudson points out that Myanmar has other escape valves.
HUDSON: When you see European investors really clamoring for the doors trying to break into this newly opened economy and not raising the same level of concern about the human rights situation and the situation of the Rohingya, that inhibits the leverage that we have. When you see the Chinese essentially doing the same, that limits the amount of leverage that any one country can bring to bear.
KELEMEN: Hudson says there's been an international outcry about the people lost at sea and caught up by human traffickers but not the same level of concern about how the Rohingya are treated at home. Some of the migrants in Asia are from Bangladesh searching for better economic opportunities. They're being sent home for the most part. But the Rohingya pose a different challenge because of the persecution they face in Myanmar, says assistant secretary Richard.
RICHARD: They need a place to stay, and that's where we hope that countries will work very closely with the U.N. Refugee Agency so that they get interviewed, there's an acknowledgment of their needs as asylum seekers and that they get the possibility for starting their lives over either in the countries in which they are right now or through a resettlement program.
KELEMEN: The U.S. has resettled some 59,000 refugees from Myanmar since 2006, she says. About a thousand of them are Rohingya. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.