This week I returned to my current home in Thailand and to the news headlines about the human tragedy in the Andaman Sea. This tragedy has been going on for many years since I have lived here. The story of suffering starts in Burma (official name – Myanmar) and it affects the whole region of Southeast Asia.
If you watch the news or read the headlines, you will see the boats crowded with starving, desperate people who nobody wants. Nations send their navy ships to pull them back out to sea. Thailand does not want them, Malaysia does not want them, Indonesia does not want them… but the source of tragedy is that their home does not want them. The Rohingya people are a large ethnic group, living in the western state of Rakhine. Most of them live in Burma and their religion is Islam.
International human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982 they are denied citizenship in Burma and the current government continues denying them citizen’s rights. They are not allowed to travel without a permission. There were even previous restrictions on marriage and children – allowed to have only two children, even though not strictly enforced. There has been communal violence in previous years, based on ethnicity and religion and a widespread sentiment in Burma, fueled by a few very nationalistic Buddhist monks, that these people do not belong there.
Thousands of them are forced to live in camps in terrible conditions they are not allowed to leave. In their own country! So, in desperation they attempt to make the dangerous journey across the sea. This becomes another huge tragedy of human trafficking, abuse, corruption and suffering. I will not go into all the details as you can read about it in any major international news source.
The challenges in Burma are complicated but one issue is very simple and clear. As I see the photos of these beautiful people… yes, poor… yes, uneducated… yes, Muslim and not Buddhist or Christian… yes, dark skinned… Rohingya are our neighbors. Human beings created in God’s image with exactly the same value as a Latvian, a German, a Thai, a Karen, a Chinese, a Barman, an Australian, etc.
Who is my neighbor? And do I love my neighbor as myself? Firstly, this is the difficult and important question for the communities in Burma. Secondly, this is a question for the neighboring nations and thirdly, this is a question for all of us. For me as a European, I think of our governments who are willing to ‘close their eyes’ and not bring up these questions in favor of economic trade since Burma is so rich with resources.
Many of my friends in Burma are wrestling with this most important question God asks of us. Also, to help Rohingya people can mean to become persecuted. Even big international NGO’s have been told by Burma government to stay away and not get involved.
This is time for serious and deep soul searching and time for brave and real neighborly love…