Life for the Rohingya Muslims of Burma, now Myanmar, is among the most dire of any people on Earth. And Shaukhat Ali of Milwaukee knows that as well as anyone.
Many of Ali’s family members, he says, have been killed or have disappeared.
His mother, sister and brother are among more than 100,000 Rohingya languishing in refugee camps after their villages were torched in sectarian violence that has erupted between Muslims and majority Buddhists in recent years — at times abetted by government forces, according to human rights groups.
Bangladesh, poor and already overcrowded, will not take them. So many flee to Malaysia and Thailand, only to die at sea or be caged like animals in squalid detention centers. Yet the Rohingya are invisible to much of the world.
Human rights scholars and advocates from around the country will gather at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday with hopes of changing that.
Milwaukee, home to about 70 Rohingya immigrant families, will play host to a conference on the plight of a people the United Nations has called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
It is one piece of an international lobbying effort aimed at thwarting an impending genocide, organizers said.
“The government does not treat us as human beings,” said Ali, of Milwaukee, who fled in 1990 through Thailand and Malaysia before immigrating to the United States in 2001.
“We want basic fundamental rights for our people to live in their country with dignity and honor.”
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority that has lived for centuries in Arakan — now Rakhine — State, a small sliver of land in the far west of Myanmar.
Myanmar has historically viewed the Rohingya as ethic Bengalis and has treated them as non-citizens since winning independence from British colonialists in 1948.
As a result, they are a stateless people, unable to obtain passports or visas, own land or hold government jobs, according to human rights organizations.
They cannot get access to higher education and have been limited to two children by the government.
The United Nations and other organizations have reported atrocities against the Rohingya.
An April report by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch details what it calls “a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State since June 2012.”
The report describes an ongoing humanitarian crisis and the role of the Burmese government, local authorities and Buddhist monks in the terror and forced relocation of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims.
It says tens of thousands of displaced Muslims have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home.
In a 2012 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, a U.N.-appointed independent observer said he had received “consistent and credible allegations of a wide range of human rights violations…including ‘sweeps’ against Muslim villages, arbitrary detentions, sexual assault and torture.”
Although the U.S. government has condemned the treatment of Rohingya, it has been treading lightly with the nascent Myanmar democracy, according to news reports.
Gregory Stanton, a professor of genocide studies at George Mason University and former U.S. State Department official who will be among those speaking Saturday, says Myanmar is on a path to genocide if it does not improve its treatment of the Rohingya.
The first and most important step, he said, is to grant them citizenship.
“The first stage of genocide is classification, where you classify a whole group of people as somehow outside the citizenship of the country,” said Stanton, founder of the New York-based Genocide Watch, who worked on the creation of criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Cambodia while at the State Department.
Stanton, who grew up in Racine and worked briefly at a Milwaukee law firm, will outline the process of genocide Saturday and discuss steps the Myanmar government can take to thwart it.
“One of the things we’ve learned about genocide is it’s a process, not an event,” Stanton said. “And these early warning signs are ones to take very seriously.”