The smiling faces of Burmese voters demonstrate an exuberant nation prepared for a new era of democracy and political freedom. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party is poised to win an historic landslide victory in Myanmar's parliamentary elections.
The smiling faces of Burmese voters, however, also hide the tragic reality for many in Myanmar -- the continued exclusion and persecution of Muslims, especially the Rohingya people. This key issue looms like a shadow over the continued consolidation of democratic rule in a country that has been plagued by harsh military rule and international isolation over the past half century.
The Muslim Rohingya people, called "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups," have struggled for mere recognition of their identity for decades in their home in Rakhine state (formerly Arakan state) of southwestern Myanmar. After the military junta was established in 1962 led by General Ne Win, citizenship and inclusion in the state of Myanmar (then known as Burma) was increasingly defined in terms of ethnicity, Burmese, and religion, Buddhist. This move was a turn away from the example set by Myanmar's founding father, Aung San, who had included ethnic and religious minorities in the executive committee of his short-lived interim government prior to his assassination in 1947. The military government under General Ne Win targeted the Rohingya, as non-Burmese and non-Buddhist, claiming them to be "illegal Bengali immigrants" who had migrated into present-day Myanmar during British colonial rule of the region beginning in 1823, despite evidence placing them in Arakan prior to this. The government does not even recognize the word Rohingya, banning the use of the term.
The smiling faces of Burmese voters hide the tragic reality for many in Myanmar -- the continued exclusion and persecution of Muslims, especially the Rohingya people.
Beginning in 1978, the military junta embarked on a campaign called Operation Naga Min (King Dragon) to cleanse the nation of illegal and unwanted foreign elements. During this operation, the Burmese military subjected the Rohingya to seizure of their lands, destruction of their mosques, arbitrary arrest and widespread rape. The goal was to drive the Rohingya from their homes and out of the country. Nearly 250,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh.
In 1991, following the failed attempt at democratization after the 8888 Uprising that led to Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, the military government again embarked on a military campaign, called Operation Pyi Thaya (Clean and Beautiful Nation) to again drive the Rohingya out of the country, with 200,000 again fleeing across the border. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya today exist as stateless and unwanted refugees across the region, struggling, and too often failing, to merely survive. Much media attention has been given to the Rohingya's plight abroad, as "boat people" fleeing on rickety rafts to nations like Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, where they have been subject to human trafficking, slavery, indefinite detention, and even being dragged back out to sea or shot at by the Thai navy. Yet, few news reports focused on the underlying cause of their flight from Myanmar.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya are denied citizenship, officially since the 1982 citizenship law that does not recognize them as one of the 135 indigenous ethnicities of Myanmar, and the right to vote, having been blocked from voting in the recent elections. With denial of their citizenship, they are denied their most basic human rights. Rohingya must receive government permission, often procured through bribes they cannot afford, to travel, get married, have children or repair their houses of worship. There has even been in place a two-child limit on Rohingya families. Many Rohingya have been forced to work as slave labor on "model villages" in Rakhine state and Rohingya women have been subject to forced prostitution by the brutal local security service.
An important first and symbolic step for a new NLD government in Myanmar should therefore be the simple recognition of the Rohingya.
The recent move towards political and economic liberalization saw little improvement in the lives of the Rohingya. There has been continued violence against the Rohingya, with Buddhist mobs driving them from the burnt wreckage of their villages in the hundreds of thousands. Myanmar has even seen demonstrations by Buddhist monks against the presence of the Rohingya in Rakhine state and in support of their continued persecution.
Many saw hope in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after her release from house arrest in 2010. She has, however, remained silent on the persecution of the Rohingya, blaming the recent violence on both sides equally. Transitioning from a human rights icon and voice of moral authority to a politician seeking votes, she has sought to court support among the majority Burmese population rather than risk controversy by speaking out against continued injustices against the Rohingya.
The NLD government, however, should begin to right the wrongs of half a century of military rule. For a vibrant and stable democracy, it should work to include, integrate and respect all people of Myanmar, including the Rohingya, and grant them equal rights as citizens under democratic rule. A litmus test for the legitimacy and strength of any democratic government should be the treatment of its minorities. An important first and symbolic step for a new NLD government in Myanmar should therefore be the simple recognition of the Rohingya.
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