Naming the Unspeakable

A Rohingya family clusters together in their makeshift home located in the Jamtoli refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Francisco Miguel Litardo.


I have been following the events in the Rakhine State for many months now as the Rohingya crisis has been escalating precipitously. A recent UN report calls for the military leaders to face genocide charges. A UN team of investigators has documented the atrocities: over 750,000 have been displaced to Bangladesh, beginning in mid-August last year; thousands have been killed in their villages; the evidence for the use of rape and torture as means of control is abundant; religious liberty is not protected, e.g., Muslims have not been able to celebrate their holidays; and military forces (the Tatmadaw) are confiscating their land and erasing their historical presence.


Three generations of this Rohingya refugee family wait in line to see a medical doctor in the Kutupalong Refugee Camp. Photo by Francisco Miguel Litardo.


Already not recognized as one of the certified ethnic groups among the 135 of Myanmar, the Rohingya lack basic rights of national identity even though they have been in the Rakhine State for many generations—some says since the mid-nineteenth century. The UN report says that the gross human rights violations and “serious violations of international humanitarian law that it found amount to the gravest crime under international law.”

The West has been baffled as to why the great moral voice for the freedom of the nation, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been largely silent about what some have called “ethnic cleansing.”  Can she not prevent this intentional extermination of an ethnic minority occurring on her watch? Where is the fierce determination that saw her through years of house arrest and suppression?

Actually, there are some significant limits on what she can actually do.  When the national elections occurred two years ago, and her party was elected to power, there was genuine euphoria in the West. The US lifted sanctions and many nations began to invest in Myanmar.  We failed to read the fine print about what the constitution actually says.  The military retained 25% of parliament seats as well as veto power on constitutional change. It would require constitutional change for Rohingya to have a state-recognized presence in the country. Yet, the tonality of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s indifference to the plight of this people is startling.

Another challenge is the status of Muslims in Myanmar.  Buddhism enjoys the status legally of the preferred religion, and approximately 88% of the population is Buddhist.  Christians are nearly 7% and Muslims are a little over 4%, according to the UN report.  The military has argued—without evidence–that the Rohingya are a launching point for ISIS or other radicalized Islamic groups, and protecting the country means a harsh evisceration of this possibility.  Once again, the actions of a few have resulted in massive suspicion of one of the great world religions.

The UN report will go to the Security Council, and the recommendation is that the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing and five other commanders stand for these crimes.  The Security Council then has the option of referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. Whether the US should reinstate sanctions as leverage is an essential consideration at this point.




Central’s partnership with Myanmar Institute of Theology calls us to be mindful of what our colleagues wrestle with all the while.  As most of the Christian leaders are ethnic minorities themselves, they know the precariousness of existence and freedom. As they depart today from their time on campus, we pray for their courage and perseverance in working for religious liberty and justice.


Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

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