For generations, the Rohingya of western Burma were a people beyond all help. They lived lives of extreme deprivation and injustice: stripped of their citizenship; barred from traveling, marrying, or worshipping freely; and subjected to terrible abuse by members of the Burmese military, the government, and even their own neighbors.
Their suffering was made worse by the fact that virtually nothing could be done to help them. They, like most Burmese, were prisoners of the country's insular and capricious military junta. Efforts to assist them had to be carried out in secret. Attempts to raise their plight with Burmese authorities were met with silence, suppression, or expulsion.
Today, as Refugees International's report makes clear, the needs of the Rohingya are greater than ever. Recent violence in Rakhine State (where most Rohingya reside) has forced thousands from their homes, left scores dead, and seen entire neighborhoods burnt to the ground. There are credible allegations that this violence took place with the collusion of some state security forces. Some of the atrocities appear to have been perpetrated by the authorities, while in other cases the state entirely - and perhaps willfully - failed to protect Rohingya villagers. Most aid agencies have also been forced from the northern part of the state, depriving many of the 800,000 Rohingya living there of food and medical assistance.
But today, no one - not even Burma's president - is denying their existence or their suffering. That represents both a remarkable change and a major opportunity for U.S. President Barack Obama, as he becomes the first American president ever to visit Burma.
It is unrealistic to expect that any foreign leader can unwind decades of anti-Rohingya discrimination in Burma; only the Burmese people can do that. That said, President Obama can do a great deal to move the process of reconciliation forward.
First, the President must inform his Burmese counterparts that respect for the rights of ethnic minorities is central to the new Burmese-American bilateral relationship. In his meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein, he must stress that Burma's nascent democracy will not survive unless all its citizens - including all Rohingya entitled to nationality - are granted equal rights under law. In his discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi, he must encourage her, as chair of the parliamentary Rule of Law committee, to recommend that Burma's nationality law be swiftly amended to restore the citizenship rights of Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. And with both leaders, he should make clear that America will permit no backsliding on this issue as it weighs further normalization of relations.
Second, President Obama should pledge that humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya - such as food, water, shelter, and health care - will expand as access to more affected populations is granted. He should also offer development assistance for Rakhine State, which would bring badly-needed jobs and services to both the Rohingya and their Rakhine neighbors. And he should pledge American technical support for reconciliation and reintegration activities between the two communities.
America's own history shows that reconciling diversity with democracy is not easy, and so it will be for Burma and the Rohingya. But by offering the support of the American people, President Obama may just convince Burmese that this is a task worth undertaking.