Rohingya: Testing Democracy in Myanmar

Rescued Myanmar ethnic Rohingya Muslims spend time at a Sri Lankan immigration detention center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednes
Rescued Myanmar ethnic Rohingya Muslims spend time at a Sri Lankan immigration detention center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. Thirty three Myanmar nationals - all Rohingya Muslims - rescued by the Sri Lankan navy when their dilapidated wooden vessel began sinking while making a perilous journey to Malaysia are refusing to go back, saying "our government will kill us." The survivors also blamed Thailand navy for virtually killing them by forcibly removing the boat's engine and letting them to float for 21 days without food, creating a predicament that killed 97, before being rescued by Sri Lanka navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

One of the fundamental challenges of a democracy is how to ensure the voice of the majority does not trample the essential rights of the minority. In the founding of the United States this was addressed by the Bill of Rights, some form of which is integrated into most democracies today.

Even as we applaud and rejoice in the new freedoms enjoyed by the Myanmar people, the country's newly elected government must face this challenge as they evolve from autocratic rule into a democratic state. The tragedy of the Rohingya people, continuing to unfold in Rakhine State in the country's western corner, on the border of Bangladesh, will be its proving ground.

The minority Muslim Rohingya continue to suffer unspeakable persecution, with more than 1,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes just in recent months, apparently with the complicity and protection of security forces. The charge that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants to Myanmar is false. There is evidence that the Rohingya have been in present day Myanmar since the 8th century. It is incontrovertible that Muslim communities have existed in Rakhina State since the 15th century, added to by descendants of Bengalis migrating to Arakan (Rakhine) during colonial times. The borders between present-day Bangladesh and Myanmar have shifted back and forth throughout these periods, resulting in ethnic Rakhine Buddhists living in Bangladesh today, and ethnic Bengali Muslims such as the Rohingya in Myanmar. As the Rahkine Buddhists are rooted in their Bangladeshi communities today, the Rakhine State in Myanmar is the only home the Rohingya know. A glaring injustice was done to the Rohingya in 1982 when the ruling junta instituted a new law excluding the Rohingya from the list of the 135 national races recognized by the Myanmar government, effectively stripping them of their nationality. Since that time they have been banned from travelling even short distances or from getting married without a permit. When a marriage permit is granted, they must sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Half of the Rohingya population is estimated to have fled the periodic pogroms that have reduced their villages to ashes and left thousands killed or raped in horrendous massacres. After having lived side by side with the Rakhine Buddhist communities, today they are an uprooted and stateless population, with some 200,000 refugees estimated to still be living in neighboring Bangladesh and hundreds of thousands more having fled to other parts of the world. The 20th century gave us a term for the ugly phenomena of stripping individuals of their nationality and persecuting them for no reason other than the color of their skin, their religion, or their ethnicity: ethnic cleansing. When the Myanmar government considers its progress on reform toward an open and democratic system of government, they must address one of the most barbaric remnants of their recent past, ethnic cleansing taking place in their midst, and right the wrongs done to the Rohingya population. We wish the Rohingya to know that they are not alone. We hope to help share their plight with the world, in the hope and faith and trust that when the world knows of their suffering it will no longer turn its back on their persecution. We humbly add our voices to the simple demand of the Rohingya people: that their rights as our fellow human beings be respected, that they be granted the right to live peacefully and without fear in the land of their parents, and without persecution for their ethnicity or their form of worship. We ask the world to not look away, but to raise its collective voice in support of the Rohingya. In these days of public diplomacy the citizens, civil societies, NGOs, private investors and the business community have a vital role to play in the context of democratic reforms, human rights and development around the globe. We must use this voice. We close with an appeal to the Myanmar government. You must amend the infamous 1982 law, and welcome the Rohingya as full citizens of Myanmar with all attendant rights. In doing so you will end the possibility of the radicalization of the Rohingya and channel their energies for the development of Myanmar. You will remove the impetus for extremism and terrorism being generated by the current mistreatment of this vulnerable minority. A strong, stable and democratic Myanmar is not only in the interest to countries of the region, but will serve the cause of global peace and stability as well. A government must in the end be judged by how it protects the most vulnerable people in its midst, and its generosity towards the weakest and most powerless. Let not the good work of this government be clouded by the continuing persecution of the Rohingya people. Jose Ramos-Horta is Former President of Timor Leste and the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Muhammad Yunus is Founder and Former Managing Director of Grameen Bank and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.