Solaye Snider, Blog Writer
In November of last year, many felt optimistic about prospects for real democracy in Myanmar as the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the country’s first free election in 25 years. In March, Htin Kyaw was elected as the nation’s first civilian president after over five decades of military rule. His election coincides with reports that tens of thousands of Rohingya have left Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in western Myanmar to return to communities they had fled from during the beginning of sectarian violence against them in 2012.
However, democracy in the nation still means discrimination for the Rohingya population, who are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar despite having lived in the region for hundreds of years. The government still insists the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, preferring to call them “Bengalis,” rather than “Rohingyas.” Without citizenship, the Rohingya are not accorded any legal protection, nor political, economic, or social rights.
In addition to their exclusion from the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya are targeted by a discriminatory two-child rule, and the Race and Religion Protection laws. To human rights groups, these laws merely “provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of the Rohingya.”
In her annual report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar identified over 30 laws that need to be reviewed for not complying with international standards. She also expressed concern that no progress has been made in allowing citizenship to over a million Rohingya in the nation.
NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has still not taken a strong position condemning the persecution of the Rohingya, in spite of being well known as a champion of human rights when Myanmar was still under military rule. When asked in previous years whether she even considered the Rohingya as Burmese citizens, she admitted that she “didn’t know.” In November of last year, Suu Kyi’s response to inquiries of genocide was that it was important not to “exaggerate the problems” faced by the Rohingya.
Even if the NLD were to work diligently towards legislative reform to grant rights and recognition to the Rohingya, the ongoing military presence in the government would remain a significant obstacle. The constitution, drafted by the military themselves, still ensures that 25% of seats will be occupied by unelected military representatives. This means that the military retain veto power over any proposed changes to the constitution, which could only pass with over 75% of the votes. The army still controls the home affairs, defense, and border-control ministries, whose work directly impacts the Rohingya and would limit important progress in the area of human rights.
Without recognition as an official ethnic group, the Rohingya will also receive no help from the recently proposed ministry of ethnic affairs. “The ministry of ethnic affairs is concerned with Myanmar ethnics. Bengali people are not one of our ethnic groups,” explained MP Ba Shein, a member of the Arakan National Party (ANP).
In the face of such obstacles, it is important for the international community to continue to put substantial pressure on Myanmar’s government to stop their persecution of the Rohingya people. In a recent report, the US State Department concluded that although the Rohingya “continue to face persecution,” they did not believe it was “on the level of genocide.” Some political analysts fear that refusing to label the atrocities a ‘genocide’ may only be another excuse for further inaction, both domestically and internationally.
MP Shwe Maung, who has spoken out in support of protection and citizenship for the Rohingya, also noted additional work needs to be done to address the xenophobia that is rampant in communities across the country. The average citizen has been influenced by a generally anti-Muslim rhetoric that encourages the view of Rohingya as “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
In the coming months, Myanmar’s new democracy can be judged by how they treat the Rohingya population. Although the NLD may face opposition from the army, ex-generals, and Buddhist Nationalists, Shwe Maung remains hopeful the government can live up to its democratic promise. “If Suu Kyi was able to defeat a 60-year-old corrupt military regime, she should be able to find a way,” he says.