Protection Of Myanmar's Muslims A Litmus Test For Reforms

Myanmar (Burma), Yangon (Rangoon), Muslim students studying in school.
Myanmar (Burma), Yangon (Rangoon), Muslim students studying in school.

In recent weeks, State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly renounced the term "Rohingya" to describe the 1.1 million inhabitants in Myanmar, instead insisting that official government policy classify them as "people who believe in Islam."

An attempt at effectively erasing the Rohingya from national lexicon, and in certain respects rewriting history, is equivalent to a denial of their very existence. Self-determination, apparently, is not something that this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is championing any longer, at least for a select few.

The European Union, also a Nobel laureate, followed by allowing Suu Kyi a margin of appreciation, saying that the government needed the political space to address the issue and would avoid the term to refer to the persecuted minority. The United States, alternatively, has explicitly said they would continue to use the term Rohingya. While disagreement over the term persists, religious intolerance and violence continues, directly impacting the Rohingya and Muslims around the country.

This past two week has seen two severe outbreaks of violence against the Muslim community in Myanmar. On July 1 a mob of villagers set fire to a mosque in Kachin state. On June 23 a mob of 200 villagers rampaged a Muslim area in Bago province, destroying a Mosque and other buildings in the compound. A reported 200 Muslim residents have fled the village in Bago fearing for their safety. In both incidents, authorities have yet to conduct a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation and the perpetrators remain at large. Not responding to these incidents seriously in face of escalating religious tension in Myanmar only legitimises voices that actively incite violence and discrimination against this minority group.

These incidents are a glaring indictment of state failure to reverse an inherited official policy that has historically abetted hatred and discrimination against the minority group. It is somewhat encouraging that the government has established a committee to address peace and stability in Rakhine State, where a majority of the Rohingya are located, but worrying still that transparency in the process has been minimal and details sparse. The systemic disenfranchisement of the Rohingya combined with a growing ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim movement is toxic for Myanmar's fragile transition. Aung San Suu Kyi and her newly installed government have explicitly made national reconciliation a top reform agenda priority, but excluding the Rohingya and Muslim minority is a fundamental mistake.

Undoubtedly, President Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi have inherited a plethora of complex problems from the old regime while the military continues to wield considerable political powers. Still, ensuring that patterns of systemic violence and abuse against the Rohingya and other minorities do not persist should be of central concern.

On June 29, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein presented a report in Geneva outlining the systemic human rights violations against the Rohingya and other minorities, reinforcing the severity of the crisis. The report details the dire circumstances for the 120,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims languishing in IDP camps in Rakhine State. OHCHR acknowledges that government-sponsored policies are designed to deny fundamentals rights to the Rohingya, stating that they could be victims of crimes against humanity.

To prevent further escalations of violence, authorities should unequivocally condemn this violence and hold perpetrators to account. It's crucial that the government take concrete measures to remove longstanding restrictions on the Rohingya and the Muslim minority. Revoking all policies that place arbitrary limitations on movement would be an appropriate start, so that, at minimum, access to basic services like health and education are no longer impeded. In the interim, it is vital that humanitarian actors are granted full and unfettered access to Rakhine State as to mitigate the harm to impacted communities through the delivery of basic services.

The repeal of discriminatory laws should be of priority, including the package of so-called "protection of race and religion" laws, ostensibly aimed at further marginalising the minority group. Amending the 1982 Citizenship Law that effectively led to the Rohingya losing their citizenship is crucial.

The international community has a responsibility to stand firm in encouraging the new government, including the military, to take a rights-respecting approach to the on-going crisis. Optimism surrounding a new and "reformed" Myanmar cannot include looking the other way while an entire group of people are rendered stateless, nameless, and protection-less.