WASHINGTON (AP) — Images of homeless and stateless Rohingya Muslims forced to flee a deadly outbreak of sectarian violence in Myanmar are being projected onto the outside walls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, putting a spotlight on a tragedy that has unfolded as the former pariah state has won praise for embracing democracy.
Myanmar says the display, at an institution constructed in Washington to depict the genocide against Jews during World War II, is inappropriate. It can be seen by tourists and passers-by just a few blocks from the White House, where only six months ago President Barack Obama paid tribute to President Thein Sein.
Stark, black-and-white images by American photographer Greg Constantine, are projected at night on the museum’s external walls. They combine searching portraits with pictures of the scorched settlements that the Rohingya were forced to flee, leaving more than 100,000 confined to camps. They are denied citizenship in Myanmar, also known as 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 Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The federally funded Holocaust museum primarily commemorates the genocide against the Jews by the Nazis. 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. The museum 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.”
Myanmar authorities’ failure to prevent sectarian clashes between minority Muslims and majority Buddhists has dented the international reputation of Thein Sein’s government.
The former general, hosted by 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 Rakhine 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.
Ye Lwin, minister-counselor at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, said by email that the Myanmar government has given priority to maintenance of law and order in Rakhine State, and is working closely with U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, on the issue. It has also hosted many foreign delegations there.
“It is not appropriate that the Holocaust Museum should conduct such an exhibition depicting the situation in Myanmar as the Rohingya issue is not related to genocide,” Ye Lwin said.
Constantine’s images will also be shown at the European Parliament building in Brussels at the end of November.
Constantine, who is from Carmel, Ind., but is based in Thailand, has traveled to Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Kuwait and the Dominican Republic to document stateless people. 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 Myanmar, 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,” Constantine said, 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, Myanmar’s government has vowed to prevent further violence, but the Rohingyas’ plight draws little sympathy among the wider population there.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, a senior investigator on human rights in Myanmar for the U.N., said last month the government is showing greater willingness to address the crisis in Rakhine 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.”