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It’s Time to Speak Up for the Rohingya

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

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Stephen Smith
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

When Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin proposed a new law to prevent “acts of barbarity” at a law conference in Madrid in October 1933, he included “acts of extermination” against ethnic, religious and social groups. He included in his definition massacres, pogroms, economic destruction and acts of humiliation.

Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany earlier that year. Lemkin saw the writing on the wall for the Jews and wanted the legal tools to stop what he saw could well happen.

By 1943, Lemkin’s own parents had been murdered in Poland. He also came up with a name for what was happening to the Jews: “genocide,” the destruction of a people.

He was not the only Jew to understand that what the Nazis were doing ultimately would lead to the Jews’ destruction. Recently, I bought a book from an antiquarian bookseller titled “The Yellow Spot: The Destruction of Europe’s Jews.” It appeared to be about the Holocaust but was published in 1936, six years before the “Final Solution.” How did the authors know what the outcome would be?

The book listed the many restrictions Germany had imposed on its Jews. The only logical conclusion was that the Jews would not survive in Europe. It’s a familiar list: restrictions on conducting business, restrictions on travel, citizenship laws that defined marriage, ID cards indicating ethnic and religious backgrounds. Jews were barred from attending school, restricted from holding government positions, forbidden to worship.

Bring the same list into 2017 and add restrictions on cellphone ownership, and it could be referring to Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar.

The reports we have heard in our interviews are all too familiar.

I recently spent time interviewing Rohingya refugees who had fled genocidal violence in Myanmar. Their testimonies will be added to the USC Shoah Foundation’s archive of witnesses to genocide, the repository founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 to document Holocaust survivors. The reports we have heard in our initial interviews with the Rohingya are all too familiar.

Over the past four decades, there have been several waves of Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives. That is not surprising, since their exclusion is baked into the Myanmar constitution. A people who are barred from citizenship have no rights. They are a religious Muslim minority in a hostile Buddhist environment. Government, military, police and religious leaders all agree that Rohingya are a bad thing, but for no apparent reason.

The Rohingya keep to themselves, practice their religion in peace, keep their traditions and don’t return violence with violence. They speak in a unique dialect that the majority in Myanmar do not understand. They often live in separate villages. This placid people are hated for no apparent reason.

I had hoped the refugees would tell us that they had heard about violence in other towns and then fled the country to be sure. But that is not the case. Myanmar’s military, local police and Buddhist nationalists chased them from their burning homes, shooting many in the back as they scrambled into the forests.

In November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, then just 17, took matters into his own hands on behalf of the Jewish people and shot Ernst vom Rath at the German Embassy in Paris. The next day, Germany unleashed a nationwide pogrom against the Jews, their homes and their property. We know it now as Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass.

Kristallnacht was not a reprisal — it was violence waiting to happen. On Aug. 25 of this year, a small number of Rohingya activists reportedly attacked a number of police outposts. Myanmar authorities used that as a pretext to let loose an organized genocidal assault on the Rohingya — burning houses, looting property, destroying madrasas, raping women and murdering in village after village.

Raphael Lemkin understood that genocide was a series of acts calculated to erode, exclude and dehumanize people, until killing them all becomes the only — and final — solution. Most Rohingya have survived for now, but they experience the daily pain of living through genocide in slow motion.

It’s incumbent on us to alert elected officials to the plight of the Rohingya. Without international intervention, they likely will become the next genocide victims. As  Paula Lebovics, a Los Angeles Holocaust survivor, often reminds me, silence is not an option.


Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

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