In June, I stood on the West steps of the United States Capitol with 15,000 Karen refugees from Burma. Largely unknown by the world, the Karen people have suffered decades of religious and ethnic persecution in Burma by the military-led regime. Many Karen people align with Christian beliefs and reside in Burma along the border of Thailand.
What is most remarkable about their message is that they stand for all persecuted religious and ethnic minorities in Burma. This is significant, because the Burmese military consistently has used the state-run education system to pit minority groups against one another. Despite the efforts of the Burmese military to indoctrinate the Karen and other minority groups, they came together in Washington to stand for all people, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
The Karen refugee population alone in the United States is significant, with over 70,000 Karen people resettled here. Many reside in areas such as St. Paul, Minnesota, Omaha, Nebraska, New Bern, North Carolina, Buffalo, New York and Des Moines, Iowa.
With such a large and active population, it should come as no surprise that refugees from Burma closely follow the news back home, just as any Polish person in the 1980s was closely following the administration’s efforts to end communism in Poland and throughout the world. Burmese refugees are watching the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and they have been disappointed by the intensified attacks of the Burmese military after sanctions were lifted in 2016.
As such, the United States has an opportunity to lead on an important human rights issue. For years, the government of Burma has targeted ethnic and religious minorities within its borders. The Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rohingya are victims of ethnic cleansing, and it is becoming clearer that the calculated way in which these groups have been targeted looks like genocide.
The late Raphael Lemkin defined genocide as a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the goal of annihilating the groups themselves. We need to look no further than Burma to watch genocide unfold before us. While the world looks to the horrific actions taken against the Rohingyas, the Burmese military has been using these same tactics against the Karen people in the East, the Kachin people and the Shan people.
The United States government should continue to advocate for all persecuted groups within Burma, including the Rohingya, the Karen, the Kachin and the Shan. Standing in unity for all persecuted minorities strengthens the case against the military’s brutal tactics and demonstrates our commitment to ending human suffering for all.
We should push Congress to adopt a resolution condemning the genocide occurring within Burma.
The U.S. government also could use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction military leaders in Burma and cut them off from support of the West. By sanctioning leaders who have committed human rights abuses, we are able to apply pressure to the military as a whole and make it clear we will not stand for genocide.
As the Trump administration continues to advocate for persecuted Christians and minorities around the world, let us not forget the Karen people and all ethnic minorities within Burma. We have an opportunity to advocate against a brutal military regime and stand in the gap for so many who have suffered for decades.
Frank R. Wolf served in Congress, representing Virginia's 10th District, from 1981-2015. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at 21Wilberforce, a Christian human rights organization based in Washington, D.C.