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
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
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
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
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. …