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Myanmar's urgent human rights need: citizenship for 'the Roma of Asia'

Myanmar (Burma) has a long way to go on human rights. An issue that demands immediate attention is a crisis involving a sizable ethnic and religious group, the Rohingya – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. This stateless people deserve citizenship and tolerance.

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President Obama, too, has remarked on the unrest in Rakhine State. “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” he said at Yangon University in Myanmar on Nov. 19, during his historic visit to the country.

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Granting citizenship to the nearly 800,000 Rohingya Muslims will accelerate Myanmar’s gradual increase in civil liberties and political freedom. Obtaining support from Buddhist monks would be key to gaining popular support for the change. Buddhists comprise almost 85 percent of Myanmar’s population. If the country’s Buddhist monks were to vocally support extending citizenship to Rohingya, then the stateless minority would have well-founded hope for recognition.

The United States has a role to play as well. Recent easing of US sanctions against Myanmar is a goodwill gesture to encourage democratization and comes partly at pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s request. Yet some human rights groups have too harshly criticized the move as premature. To its credit, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration assisted Rohingya refugees in Myanmar and neighboring countries with $24 million in aid in fiscal year 2012.

While this aid alleviates suffering, humanitarianism alone will not resolve the centuries-old ethnic and religious tension between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya. US diplomats in Myanmar should urge both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein to work cooperatively toward granting the Rohingya citizenship and fostering religious and ethnic tolerance throughout Myanmar.

Today, Myanmar increasingly demonstrates more openness in reforms: Several political prisoners have been freed, peaceful demonstrations are allowed, and elections are held. However, the government is stalling on the Rohingya issue, their most pressing human rights concern.

National reconciliation between majority Buddhists and minorities, including Christians and Muslims, cannot be a toothless political catchphrase. Reconciliation comes only through action, and the first action needed is to recognize 800,000 Muslim Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar.

Benjamin J. Hayford is working on his master’s in international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.


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