Myanmar's Urgent Human Rights Need: Citizenship for 'The Roma of Asia'

Article excerpt

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 countrys 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. …