Washington’s Holocaust Museum Highlights Burma’s Rohingya

By Matthew Pennington 6 November 2013

WASHINGTON — Just a few blocks from the White House where Burma’s president was feted for working for democracy, another side of his country is now on display at a more haunting Washington landmark: the plight of its most beleaguered people, the Rohingya Muslims, depicted in photos projected at night onto the external walls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The stark, black and white images by American photographer Greg Constantine combine searching portraits with pictures of the scorched settlements the Rohingya were forced to flee after a deadly outbreak of sectarian violence last summer that left more than 100,000 confined to camps and further darkened the prospects for this stateless people. They are denied citizenship in Burma, and are typically regarded there as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

“It’s disturbing that at a time when there are so many conversations on the perceived amazing developments in Burma, this tragedy has been overshadowed by everybody’s interest on what’s been happening elsewhere in the country with democratic reforms,” said Constantine, who has spent seven years photographing the Rohingya on both sides of the Burma-Bangladesh border.

The US government-funded Holocaust museum primarily commemorates the genocide against the Jews by the Nazis during World War II. But it also documents the mass killings that have blighted Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, and seeks to spotlight situations where it sees a repeat of such atrocities. It has previously projected images on its walls of Holocaust survivors, and from South Sudan and the Darfur region of Sudan.

“We are not saying that genocide is taking place in Burma,” said Michael Abramowitz, director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “We are not trying to equate these different situations. The Holocaust was a unique event in human history. But what we do want to do is use our assets to try to prevent these kinds of crimes from happening to others in the future.”

The Burma authorities’ failure to prevent sectarian clashes between minority Muslims and majority Buddhists has dented the international reputation of the government of Burma President Thein Sein.

The former general, hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House in May, has been applauded in the West for steering the country from decades of direct military rule. He has eased media restrictions, freed most political prisoners and been rewarded with a rapid lifting of sanctions.

But crimes against humanity have been reported in the midst of the democratic reforms. Sectarian violence that broke out between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya in the country’s west has spread to other regions of the country. In all, some 240 people have been killed, mostly Muslims, and 240,000 forced to flee their homes.

Many thousands of Rohingya have fled by sea. More than 60 died this weekend when their boat capsized.

The Burma Embassy in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment about the exhibition. Constantine’s images will also be shown at the European Parliament building in Brussels at the end of November.

Constantine, who is from Carmel, Indiana, but is based in Thailand, has traveled to Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Kuwait and the Dominican Republic to document stateless peoples. He regards the situation of the Rohingya, who have faced persecution for decades, as the most extreme case of all.

He began photographing them in Bangladesh in 2006, but only last year was he able to visit them in Burma, traveling to the western city of Sittwe. He said he saw a “complete helplessness” among Rohingya in displacement camps: People who wanted to return their homes but had no idea there’s little left there but rubble.

“It was disturbing to see and feel the complete and total absence of any Muslim presence in Sittwe,” said Constantine, who last visited in March. “There was no call to prayer going on. All the mosques were empty or destroyed or Burmese troops were living in them. Every single Muslim shop was boarded up.”

Facing criticism from the West and the Islamic world, Burma’s government has vowed to prevent further violence, but the Rohingyas’ plight draws little sympathy among the wider population.

UN special rapporteur for Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana said last month the government is showing greater willingness to address the crisis in Arakan State but has failed to investigate allegations of widespread human rights violations, including by security forces.

Constantine, for one, says the stone facade of Holocaust museum is an appropriate canvas for his photographs.

“The fact is this is a museum that’s there to elevate discussion of atrocities against humanity,” he said. “I believe that’s what happening against the Rohingya right now.”