Is Myanmar success for Obama, or global shame?

As we hiked on a bamboo bridge over a river, past a police checkpoint, by water buffalo, over abandoned rice paddies and past a hamlet where 28 Muslim children had been hacked to death, word raced ahead of us. Farmers poured out to welcome us from two besieged villages that for two years have been mostly cut off from the world.

One man, a teacher who spoke a bit of English, thrust a handwritten letter in my hands. Puzzled, I asked him whom he had written the letter for. He explained that he had drafted it in hopes that a foreigner might visit some day and transmit news of the villagers’ suffering.

“Many people are by violent wound died,” the letter recounted in painstaking English. “Now our Rohingyas many people are homeless. We do not have home, food and living very difficulty. Now we are to the cage prison sent.”

The villagers are Rohingya, a dark-skinned Muslim minority that is deeply resented by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. For decades, Myanmar persecuted the Rohingya and left them stateless, and in the past few months, the authorities have amplified the crimes against humanity — yet the global reaction has been largely indifference.

Since violent clashes in 2012, the Rohingya have been confined to quasi-concentration camps or to their villages, denied ready access to markets, jobs or hospitals. This spring, the authorities expelled the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which had been providing the Rohingya with medical care.

I’m on my annual “win-a-trip” journey, in which I take a university student — this year it’s Nicole Sganga of Notre Dame — on a reporting trip (she’s blogging at nytimes.com/ontheground). We’ve found dangerous tension and some malnutrition, but by far the biggest problem is medical care. More than 1 million Rohingya are getting little if any health care, and some are dying as a result.

President Barack Obama, in his address a few days ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, cited Myanmar as one of the administration’s diplomatic successes. It’s true that Myanmar has made tremendous political gains in recent years — the permission I received to report here is testimony to that — and there is much to admire about the country’s progress toward democracy. But let’s not make excuses for a 21st-century apartheid worse even than the system once enforced in South Africa. As Human Rights Watch has documented, what has unfolded here constitutes ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Likewise, another watchdog group, Fortify Rights, cites internal Myanmar documents and argues that a pattern over the years of killings, torture, rape and other repression amounts to crimes against humanity under international law. Weighed against such abuses, Obama’s criticisms of Myanmar have been pathetically timid.

I’ve seen greater malnutrition and disease over the years — in South Sudan, Niger, Congo, Guinea — but what’s odious about what is happening here is that the suffering is deliberately inflicted as government policy. The authorities are stripping members of one ethnic group of citizenship, then interning them in camps or villages, depriving them of education, refusing them medical care, and even expelling humanitarians who seek to save their lives.

That’s not a tragedy for one obscure ethnic group; it’s an affront to civilization. Please, President Obama, find your voice.

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