Asia - Pacific

Rohingya: Myanmar's ethnic timebomb

Country's new government up against years of ingrained prejudice in solving situation of one of the most persecuted people in the world

Rohingya: Myanmar's ethnic timebomb


By Kyaw Ye Lynn

YANGON, Myanmar

Myanmar’s newly-elected president has proposed the creation of a ministry aimed at solving the country's long-standing ethnic issues, but on a list of the country's 135 official ethnicities one minority is nowhere to be seen.

For years, the country's Muslim Rohingya community has been branded one of the most persecuted in the world, but Aung San Suu Kyi's election winning National League for Democracy (NLD) rarely dares to breath its name.

“If we talk about Rohingya Muslims, people won't listen to us,” a Western diplomat who did not wish to be named as he was not authorized to talk to media told Anadolu Agency this weekend.

He added that even politicians who appear open-minded would say the ethnic minority -- that most citizens refer to as Bengali -- is not one of the country's various ethnicities, just illegal migrants from a neighboring country.

"Rohingya is the most sensitive word in Myanmar... They always say this is the legacy of the former junta, [but] it [dealing with the Rohingya issue] is like a bomb waiting to go off," he says.

Since mid-2012, communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has forced around 150,000 people – mostly Rohingya -- into temporary camps -- accommodation that foreign media and human rights groups have classified as concentration camps.

Just last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights called on the incoming government to remove restrictions on the freedom of movement of Rohingya.

The new government of Myanmar has “an opportunity to break from the tragic status quo [of the previous government]," Yanghee Lee said during a March 18 presentation of her second report to the UNHCR.

Talking to Anadolu Agency on Saturday, the diplomat underlined that one of the biggest challenges facing Suu Kyi’s government is “growing religious intolerance” in the country.

Despite hundreds of migrants crossing Myanmar's 1,624 kilometer border with India each day, the government recently jailed two Mandalay-based interfaith Muslim activists for two years with hard labor for passing between the two countries.

Lawyer Thein Than Oo has claimed that the sentencing is due to pressure from a Buddhist hardline group, as they were arrested soon after Ma Ba Tha (the Race and Religion Protection Organization) began a prominent media campaign against them.

Ma Ba Tha was formed after the violence in Western Rakhine in 2012, with a focus on what one of the group's monks has called the Islamic "invasion" of Myanmar, and is responsible for a series of laws seen as designed to stop Muslims having multiple wives, large families and marrying Buddhist women.

It draws its support from the country's uneducated Buddhist masses, and has rapidly become one of the country's most powerful religious organizations.

“Clients [like mine] will be sentenced again under this charge until the country’s judiciary system is freed from intervention,” Thein Than Oo said, claiming that if the two activists were Rohingya the punishment would have been even heavier.

During the country's landmark Nov. 8 polls, Ma Ba Tha began to flex its muscle, leaving political parties terrified to pick up the Rohingya cause for fear that any affiliation in the predominantly Buddhist nation would eat into their vote.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have claimed that the Race and Religion laws were enacted with a political purpose after Ma Ba Tha branded Suu Kyi's NLD as "Islamists" prior to the polls.

One of the loudest voices calling for Rohingya to be officially included in the country's ethnic mix is former Rohingya lower house MP Shwe Maung.

On Sunday, the former Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker told Anadolu Agency that the Rohingya's best hope is in the “political will" of Suu Kyi and the country's new president, the NLD's Htin Kyaw.

"The new NLD government should prioritize rights of minorities such as Rohingya, Kachin, Chin and etc," the member of parliament from Jan. 2011 to Jan. 2016 said in an email.

Kachin and Chin are listed among the country's eight "major national ethnic races" -- along with Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan -- but not Rohingya.

"In genuine democracy, majority rules but minorities' rights must be respected and granted officially," he said. "Of course, it is the worst in the case of Rohingya. The most important thing to accept by the new government is Rohingya are indigenous people of Arakan [Rakhine] and they are not illegal immigrants."

He said that he expects the Rohingya issue to be a key factor in Myanmar's future both nationally and internationally, and believes Suu Kyi could convince people to accept and understand Rohingya, but in doing so the NLD will face a multitude of challenges from the army, ex-generals, the USDP... The list goes on.

"To solve the Rohingya issue, the new parliament should repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, Political Parties Registration Law and Race & Religion Protection Laws," he says.

"And [the] NLD Government must do its best to convince not only Commander-In-Chief but also Myanmar people by explaining how this issue is important for a genuine democracy."

He expresses certainty that there will be "challenges", but adds that if Suu Kyi was able to defeat a 60-year-old corrupt military regime, she should be able to find a way.

Asked by Anadolu Agency this weekend as to what the NLD planned to do to aid the Rohingya situation, one of the party's senior members failed to offer a concrete answer when approached at party headquarters.

“To be clear, we view them as human beings, and ideally accept they deserve human rights," said Nyan Win, from the NLD's central executive committee.

"That's all I can say to you right now," he says.

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