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We Must Act Now in Order to Save the Rohingya People

In 1939, four months before the invasion of Poland, 937 souls set sail aboard the MS St. Louis as a dark cloud of totalitarianism swept through Germany at the hands of the Third Reich. Passengers aboard the St. Louis, many of whom were Jewish, left their homes in Hamburg for what they hoped would be a new life across the Pacific Ocean and a world away. Instead, the world turned its back. 

Today, the Rohingya people in Burma suffer at the hands of dictators bent on genocide amid a world awash in indifference. As you read this, we have an opportunity to act or risk the same outcomes that led to the near-erasure of the Jewish people.

When the St. Louis tried to disembark at the Havana harbor, authorities turned back nearly everyone. Driven by antisemitic vitriol, the Cuban government effectively sentenced 254 Jewish men, women and children to immediate death as they sent them back to Germany en route to the kinds of concentration camps that would go on to kill 12 million people in the name of security, poverty alleviation, and the purification of the master race.

History is repeating itself in Myanmar—also known as Burma—and will continue unless we act. The United States Senate must pass the BURMA Act today to deliver the kind of aid and empowerment those aboard theSt. Louis never received.

The violence is well documented, and the terror of the Rohingya people is unmistakable. A 2018 United Nations report cited the “gravest crimes under international law” after a military crackdown resulted in targeted persecution, rape and mass murder as more than 700,000 Rohingya fled their homes to seek safety. Like the Jews of Europe eight decades before, the Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar, have long been scapegoated for societal ills. They were othered, ghettoized and dehumanized long before the UN cited crimes against humanity in the region.

Global actors, including the United States, now formally recognize what happened in Myanmar as a genocide. Meanwhile, the mass exodus continues to result in dangerous journeys in which men, women and children seek some semblance of freedom—often in makeshift rafts on the open sea—desperate to find a welcoming place that offers fundamental human rights. According to a UNHCR statement, “some 630 Rohingya have attempted sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal from January to May 2022, with women and children making up 60% of those trying to flee.”

Survivors have been met again and again with harsh conditions and deepening instability. Thousands have been turned away from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, many of whom are forced back out to sea without support, echoing the ill-fated journey of the St. Louis.

When Rohingya are admitted to certain countries, such as Bangladesh, increasingly strict policies curtail fundamental freedoms. Bangladeshi authorities, for example, demolished thousands of Rohingya shops, closed dozens of schools, prohibited learning in the native Rohingya dialect, and restricted movement and internet access within the largest refugee camp in the world in Cox’s Bazar.

In recent months, thousands of Rohingya people have forcibly moved to the dangerous island of Bhasan Char, located 37 miles off the mainland, where harsh weather conditions wreak havoc.

For years, the world ignored the trauma and suffering of the Rohingya people. Their pleas for justice were dismissed while the Tatmadaw, the military body that overthrew Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, continued their pervasive campaign of terror. The good news is that the world is beginning to call out this injustice. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood on the steps of the United States Holocaust Museum and declared violence against the Rohingya a genocide because “It’s crucial to all of us who are committed to living up to the maxim of ‘Never again.’”

We know this story viscerally, which is why we must demand accountability from Congress and continued support from the Biden administration.

Now is the time for the United States to turn words into action.

The United States, United Nations Security Council, International Criminal Court and international powers worldwide must seize this opportunity to bring those responsible to justice. It is crucial to confront these atrocities comprehensively.

We can do that through the BURMA Act, which aims to bring those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice. The Rohingya people deserve a safe place to call home with guaranteed protection. That is impossible as long as Myanmar remains under military control.

As representatives of the Jewish community, we strongly urge the Senate to act swiftly in passing this crucial legislation.

As the globe teeters on the edge of uncertainty, the United States must reclaim its mantle of leadership and stand up for the Rohingya people.

Eighty-three years ago, the world stood idly by while an authoritarian regime dehumanized and targeted millions because of their inherent identity. May 27 marked the anniversary of the passengers of the St. Louiswaiting to be let in on Cuban shores. The boat remained in international waters until June 9, when authorities finally told them none of Cuba, Canada, or the U.S would accept them. They bore witness to how apathy turns into genocide.

To change the future, we must learn from the past. We can do that by demanding that Congress act by swiftly passing the BURMA Act.

Serena Oberstein is the executive director of Jewish World Watch, bringing help and healing to survivors of mass atrocities around the globe and seeking to inspire people of all faiths and cultures to join the ongoing fight against genocide. She has spent nearly two decades working toward a more just society  on the local, state, federal and international level in the nonprofit and public sectors.

Source: Jewish Journal

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