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There is no democracy in Burma without rights for the Rohingya

By Joseph K. Grieboski, The Hill

In Burma, over 1.1 million Rohingya currently suffer from the impacts of systematic, widespread oppression. For decades, the Muslim minority in a largely Buddhist country has been denied citizenship, rendered stateless, and stripped of basic rights. The Rohingya face daily threats to their life and security in what the United Nations declares amount to “crimes against humanity.” Human rights activists deem the Rohingya the most persecuted minority in the world, warning of direct state involvement in actions that could constitute ethnic cleansing.

Friday, Aug. 20 was World Rohingya Day, marking an opportunity for the global community to truly commit to alleviating the suffering of the Rohingya people. In light of the ongoing crises occurring elsewhere in the world, the plight of the Rohingya often fades from the international spotlight. World Rohingya Day is a salient reminder that members of the ethnic group continue to live lives permeated by fear and marginalization. This must be seen for what it is — unacceptable — and cannot be allowed to continue. Decisive action must be taken to afford the Rohingya people the equal opportunities and freedoms they deserve.

In almost every aspect of their lives, the community faces continuous, unrelenting discrimination. Under the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the Rohingya are excluded from the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. They face restrictions on freedom of movement, limits on access to education and healthcare, and prohibition from civil service professions. They are unable to freely practice their religion. They have been barred from political participation through disenfranchisement and disqualification from running for office. They are required to obtain official permission to marry, a process not mandated for other ethnicities. This is institutionalized persecution across the political, economic and social spheres, and it must be redressed.

Furthermore, the Rohingya community has long been subject to mistreatment by those meant to protect them: the Burmese Army. The United Nations has reported extrajudicial killings, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labor, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and the systematic denial of due process rights at the hands of the military and law enforcement. Due to rampant corruption in the justice system and a general lack of will to investigate crimes against the Rohingya, perpetrators of this abuse largely enjoy impunity. The direct complicity of authorities in the mistreatment of minorities has paved the way for violence targeting Burmese Muslims, particularly the Rohingya.

This was exemplified in 2012 when an outbreak of sectarian conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims resulted in 150 dead and 140,000 displaced. In the following years, sporadic anti-Muslim riots have left scores injured and killed, driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes. Currently, an estimated 120,000 remain internally displaced and confined to relief camps in central Rakhine state. With no national identity and no government to turn to, many have fled to neighboring countries. This has contributed to a mounting refugee crisis — in the past two years alone, more than 94,000 Rohingya have sought asylum in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Upon arrival, many have either been turned away or forced to reside in overcrowded camps.

Even if these refugees were to return home, it is unlikely they would be able to resettle peacefully without fear of violence and oppression. In recent years, the level of religious intolerance in Burma, and in particular anti-Muslim sentiment, has surged alarmingly. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups such as Ma Ba Tha and the 969 movement continue to gain influence, using inflammatory rhetoric to spread xenophobia. They refer to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” based on the assumption that the community is comprised of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many having lived in Burma for generations and self-identifying as Rohingya.

In a particularly disappointing development, the recently instated National League for Democracy government has refused to take an unequivocal stance condemning the persecution of the Rohingya. Despite activists’ high hopes for the nation’s first democratically elected government, State Chancellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has demonstrated hesitancy to speak openly on the issue. She has advised the U.S. ambassador against using “Rohingya” to refer to the population, warning of the challenges posed by the use of “emotive terms” that would hinder conflict resolution processes. The chancellor has also requested that the international community “give us enough space to solve all our problems,” but has not unveiled any concrete plans to address the ongoing human rights violations.

Ending the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma will not be an easy process, and it must take place on all levels. To begin with, it is crucial to afford the Rohingya citizenship and repeal discriminatory legislation. Eliminating state-sanctioned mistreatment of minorities will be a significant first step towards tangible progress. Facilitating interfaith dialogue and taking measures to prevent the spread of hate speech will also play integral roles in reconciliation and inclusivity.

It is time for the people who only want the same basic rights as any other citizen to finally be treated as they deserve: with fairness, acceptance and respect.

Grieboski is the chairman and CEO of Grieboski Global Strategies, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, and founder and secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.


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