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Chicago activists mark anniversary of bloody crackdown on Rohingya Muslims

People march in Federal Plaza Saturday for “Save Rohingya Day." | Rachel Hinton/ Sun-Times

Though her parents fled Myanmar over 30 years ago when it was known as Burma, 16-year-old Sharifah Bibi said that the decision wasn’t an easy one for them or other Rohingya Muslims faced with violence in the Southeast Asian country.

“My parents have told me about the persecution and victimization of their past — they were continuously persecuted and helpless there,” Bibi said of her parents, who fled the country for Malaysia before moving to the U.S. “I’m encouraging everyone to stand with us and for our rights. Even one voice can give us strength.”

Bibi joined about 150 people who gathered and marched in Federal Plaza Saturday afternoon to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a bloody crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar that organizers say caused more than 700,000 to flee the Buddhist-majority nation for bordering Bangladesh.

RELATED: From Myanmar to Chicago — a teenage Rohingya Muslim refugee’s journey

Estimates on the Rohingya death toll vary. In surveys conducted in December, Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 9,000 died between Aug. 25 and Sept. 24 last year in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Conservative estimates puts the number killed at 6,700.

Maysa Hammoud, one of the organizers of the day’s demonstration with the Burma Task Force, said violence against the Rohingya people has been “going on for decades” and is part of a “slow-burning genocide” that stems from a “campaign of hate that’s been going on for years and years against the Rohingya” in the country.

“The world thinks that it’s not as big as it is, but what’s happening is a genocide. We have experts that have clearly labeled it as a genocide and we want the world to know this,” Hammoud said. “Now it’s turning into something more serious, more violent. Now there’s burning of homes, raping of the women, killing of the men and slowly these people, to escape this, have left their homeland — their ancestral homeland — and have escaped to … neighboring countries. We want to have the public hear the voices of the Rohingya.”

At the rally, adults were joined by children holding signs almost as big as they were, demanding the government “Stop killing and raping Rohingya women” and “Send humanitarian assistance to Arakan State,” the former name of Rakhine. Others stomped a photo of Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi shaking hands with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The Chicago event coincided with similar events in Boston, New York and Washington, organizers said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, who visited refugee camps in Bangladesh last year, recalled the story of a woman who witnessed the gruesome murder of her husband, brother-in-law and son. Her district has seen an influx of Rohingya Muslims, Schakowsky said.

“This cannot be overlooked. This is not just something that’s happening in a corner of the world we need to stand up and say, ‘People are being killed,’ ” Schakowsky said. “The soul is just shaken by hearing these stories . . . As much as Bangladesh can do, we need to do more to help them.”