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.

Khin Maung Win/AP
A Myanmar soldier stands guard at the Bawdupa refugee camp for Muslims in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar on Jan. 8. Sectarian violence last year between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya forced many people, mostly Rohingya, into squalid camps. Op-ed contributor Benjamin J. Hayford writes: 'The first action needed is to recognize 800,000 Muslim Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar.'

The move toward greater freedom and representative government in Myanmar (Burma) over the last few years is a welcome one. But President Thein Sein and his associates in the military have a long way to go toward achieving democracy, human rights, and a market economy.

One area of human rights 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, according to the United Nations.

Imagine life as part of a society that lacks a formal national identity. Now picture that society, devoid of citizenship, being persecuted for having different religious beliefs than the surrounding ethnicities within the country – barred from owning land, traveling, or even attending school.

This is the life of nearly 800,000 people in state of Rakhine, in western Myanmar. They have been called the “the Roma of Asia.” Rendered stateless by the passage of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya, who are Muslim, are heavily impoverished and lack economic development. Unclaimed by the Burmese, who view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingya are disenfranchised and vulnerable.

Tensions in Rakhine State between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities last June and October led to violent clashes and dozens of deaths. About 115,000 people were internally displaced, the vast majority of them Rohingya. Many of their homes were burned to the ground.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited displacement camps in Rakhine in December, observed: "People from both communities ... are living in fear and want to go back to living a normal life. There is an urgent need for reconciliation."

If these ethnic and religious clashes are truly “internal affairs of a sovereign state” as the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, then now is the time for the government to exercise responsible sovereignty and encourage tolerance locally.

President Thein Sein has established a 27-member Internal Investigation Commission to identify the root causes of inter-communal unrest. Deplorably, not a single Rohingya sits on the commission.

Amb. Ufuk Gokcen, permanent observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the UN, exhorts Mr. Thein Sein to reach out to and talk with the Rohingya community. “Without a courageous political discourse and leadership on the part of the Government and opposition together, Government cannot initiate and sell to the nation an action to grant citizenship to Rohingya,” the ambassador says.

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.

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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