Razia Sultana, a Burmese-born attorney, teacher and human-rights advocate, was named this month as one of 10 honorees as the State Department’s 2019 International Women of Courage.
Sultana is now a citizen of Bangladesh, where she’s an advocate for some of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar’s military in an exodus that began in 2017 and continues today.
The Muslim-minority Rohingya have long been persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. “It was ethnic cleansing for decades, but actually this is genocide now,” Sultana said during a visit to Minneapolis this week coordinated by Global Minnesota, whose “Great Decisions” dialogue this month explores refugees and global migration, of which the Rohingya diaspora is but one example.
An International Criminal Court prosecutor has opened a preliminary examination into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity charges, according to a Reuters report.
Myanmar, however, does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction. In fact, it doesn’t recognize, or respond to, much of the international pressure it receives, especially since it’s protected on the United Nations Security Council by Russia and Myanmar’s ally China, which invariably insist that these are internal, not international, issues.
The person who should be pressing Myanmar’s military is Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto Burmese leader. But the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate has let down her country and the world, having proved to be an international woman of cowardice for her complicity in horrible human-rights abuses against the Rohingya and other ethnic Burmese minorities.
Sultana, true to form (“I don’t hide anything, I just speak out”) and to her State Department recognition, said that the Burmese leader is “not taking any action, not doing anything, just being silent.” At one point, “she was our idol; I supported her, we were so proud of her. … But after the election,” Sultana plaintively asked, “How can a person be so opposite? She gave all the power to the army.”
Myanmar, Sultana said, “is run by the army; the army needs to go back to its barracks.”
Sultana has documented what happened when the Army left those barracks, including as the chief researcher for a report titled “Rape by Command: Sexual violence as a weapon against the Rohingya,” which includes scores of first-person accounts of brutalities against women and even young girls that should shame the world into taking action.
“The scale of what has been done to the Rohingya Muslims and the allegations of crimes against humanity really mark this out as one of the most terrible events of this century so far,” British U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce recently told the U.N. Security Council.
The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report reflects the severity of the violence. “Independent investigations undertaken during the year found evidence that corroborated the 2017 ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine State and further detailed the military’s killing, rape and torture of unarmed villagers during a campaign of violence that displaced more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh,” the report stated.
Sultana stressed that the Rohingya are just one of many minority groups suffering under the central government’s brutal rule. “It’s boiling in the pot in Myanmar,” Sultana said. “Other minority communities are facing the same thing.”
Pots are boiling over in hot spots worldwide, spiking refugee and migrant totals to postwar highs. The resulting crises can destabilize neighboring nations, as well as the West, which may be just one reason why Moscow and Beijing block collective action to coerce countries into better behavior.
Bangladesh recently told the U.N. it cannot accept any more Rohingya refugees. Most actually want to return, but they need international protection, Sultana said.
She used the example of a 16-year-old girl. And, in the process, made a broader point about the resilience of refugees, and just how courageous many are, like Sultana herself.
The girl, who was raped by Burmese forces, arrived at the border only focusing on others. “To see how strong she was, talking about how her mother was shot, her father was shot, she didn’t ask anything for herself. And she asked, ‘Can we go back?’ ”
“They are the real courage women,” said Sultana. “We are just expressing their story, their feelings; they are the main thing. They are my encouragement.
“Maybe religion is different, but we are one country,” concluded Sultana. “We don’t want to be apart from Burma, we want to live together.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.