Just a few blocks from the White House where Myanmar’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 photographs projected at night onto the external walls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The stark, black and white images by US 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 Myanmar 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 Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh.
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 failure of authorities to prevent sectarian clashes between minority Muslims and majority Buddhists has dented the international reputation of the government of Burmese 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.
However, sectarian violence that broke out between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya in the west has spread to other regions of the country. About 240 people have been killed, mostly Muslims, and 240,000 forced to flee their homes.