Soros: As a Jew in Budapest, I Too Was a Rohingya

A migrant who arrived by boat, part of a group of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, receives medical assistance at an aid station in Kuala Langsa in Indonesia's Aceh Province May 15, 2015. George Soros recently said the plight of the Rohingyas has "alarming" parallels to the Nazi genocide. Roni Bintang/Reuters

I have been a supporter of Burma's democracy movement since 1993. For most of that time, the prospect of change seemed remote, and I felt increasingly discouraged.

Then, in 2010, quite suddenly, or so it seemed, the ruling military junta decided to abandon absolute authoritarian rule. The world was stunned.

My engagement in Burma during those dark days taught me an important lesson. Sometimes it's necessary to support a lost cause for a long time just to keep the flame alive. That way, when the situation changes, groundwork for progress has already been laid.

As of today, I find myself again growing discouraged. Making the transition from military rule to a more open society is not easy, and in many ways the government of Burma has made real progress in its reform efforts.

I fear that many of these reforms are not sustainable, because they have not yet been institutionalized. It's also true that political and economic power remains mostly concentrated in the hands of a privileged few who monopolize the revenue from Burma's abandoned natural resources.

The most immediate threat to Burma's transition is the rising anti-Muslim sentiment and officially condoned abuse of the Rohingya people. That has occurred under the watch of the current rulers in Naypyidaw.

From private conversations with progressive Burmese officials, I know that some in power genuinely want to see a Burma where all are treated equally, but these officials also fear the potential of extremist violence from the small but powerful group of religious radicals. These extremists have created a tinderbox that could blow up the entire reform process.

The government must confront these extremists and their financial supporters. In January, when I visited Burma for the fourth time in as many years, I made a short visit to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, in order to see for myself the situation on the ground. I met with state and local leaders and both Rakhine and Rohingya populations, and also talked to internally displaced persons and those mostly Rohingya living in a section of Sittwe called Aung Mingalar, a part of the city that can only be called a ghetto.

In Aung Mingalar, I heard the echoes of my childhood. You see, in 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I too was a Rohingya. Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by Nazis around Eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home to thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment.

Now, they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation.

The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming. Fortunately, we have not reached a stage of mass killing.

I feel very strongly that we must speak out before it is too late, individually and collectively. The Burmese government's insistence that they are keeping the Rohingya in the ghetto for their own protection simply is not credible.

Government authorities have tried to reassure me. They say things are under control and not as bad as reported by outsiders, who they claim don't understand the local culture or the long and complicated history of Rakhine State.

I understand that half a century of living in isolation under repression can make a population vulnerable to intermediation and exploitation in all sorts of ways, but I also know that most of the people of Burma are fair-minded and would like their country to be a place where all can live in freedom.

2015 is a crucial year for Burma; a tipping point, in the words of Yanghee Lee, U.S. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. With the prospect of democratic changes to the 2008 constitution and the holding of free and fair elections, meaningful reform could take hold.

As a longtime friend and supporter of Burma, I hope for a positive outcome for all the people of the country. But where I once felt a great sense of optimism, I am now filled with trepidation for the future.

I hope those in power will immediately take the steps necessary to counter extremism and allow open society to take root. In the lead-up to the elections, it's crucial that official acts should be taken to counter the pervasive hate and anti-Rohingya propaganda on social media and the racist public campaigns of the 969 movement.

The promise of Burma as a flourishing and vibrant open society is still within reach. It's up to Burma's leaders and people whether this promise is fulfilled.

George Soros is the founder of the Open Society Foundations and chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC. This was his contribution to last week's Oslo Conference on Rohingyas.