WASHINGTON — With no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis, faith leaders and advocacy groups fanned out across Capitol Hill on Wednesday to pressure U.S. lawmakers to fast-track legislation punishing Myanmar's government and demanding better treatment of the country's Muslim minority.
"America has the power and only America can stop the genocide," said Karim Yakub, a Rohingya refugee who has lived in the United States since 2015.
"How can America not pressure?" Shala Shamim of the Islamic Center of Maryland said. "Stop the [U.S.] aid going to Burma, put sanctions on them. There are lots of ways of pressuring them."
Similar bills before the House of Representatives and Senate would limit U.S. military aid to Naypyidaw and impose restrictions on jadeite and rubies originating in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The bills demand that Myanmar complete a transition to democracy, allow displaced Rohingya people to return to their homes, allow humanitarian relief to affected regions, provide access to full citizenship for the Rohingya population, and hold accountable those responsible for ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide.
"We are here because the Rohingya people are facing genocide, and we want Congress to know what is happening right now to the Rohingya people," Yakub said. "The Burmese government forces are murdering, Rohingya houses are burned. So we are here today to stop the genocide, and for the United States of America to take stronger action with the Burmese government."
Lawmakers of both political parties have condemned the slaughter and displacement of Rohingya Muslims and echoed calls for action. Few, however, believe Congress will act soon.
Looking at options
"I think at this point we are still examining options," Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA. "What's happened there is just despicable, and it needs to be addressed and it will be. But at this point, I can't tell you where it's going to land."
Risch said America's options are limited and anything Washington does to pressure Naypyidaw will take time.
"They [Rohingya Muslims] are there, we're here. If you're talking about military action, those things don't happen instantly, and it's unlikely there would be military action in any event. It would be other things such as sanctions and pressure on the government — they always take time," the senator said.
News reports say efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees have stalled, leaving hundreds of thousands who fled to Bangladesh last year in limbo as conditions worsen at sprawling camps.
Yakub said he witnessed Rohingya villages being razed and fears for family members who stayed behind in Myanmar.
"They burned down our villages, nobody helped," he said. "My family is still in Burma. For them, life is like a prison and hell — nowhere to go, nothing to do, no citizenship. They are not safe in Burma. So I cannot be silent. I have to speak up for my family, for all the Rohingya people."
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar's many ethnic minorities in the Buddhist-majority nation. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be economic migrants from Bangladesh and has never granted them citizenship, even though most can show their families have been in the country for generations.