Special Guest Post from our Policy Team by Maria Simeonova

October 1, 2015, marked the end of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s deliberation on technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of civil liberties. During the course of the debates, many states and international organizations urged the Government of Myanmar to maintain its engagement and cooperation with the international community in order to guarantee its peoples’ right to self-determination. Canada, however, has avoided directly addressing the human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Myanmar against its Rohingya Muslim minority, and instead expressed its apprehension of recurring human right abuses and political instability in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cambodia. It may be that given the upcoming general election in Myanmar in November, the Government of Canada is closely monitoring the situation from a safe distance in order to maintain a cordial bilateral relationship. However, many members of the international community[1] voiced their concerns over Myanmar’s disenfranchisement of the Rohingya. If the upcoming elections are to be free and fair as indicated by a senior member of Myanmar’s government, then the world will witness the first democratically-elected government in that country in many years. The assurance of the open invitation to Western observers, such as the Carter Foundation and the EU, to observe the election process is a positive stride forward; however, ensuring that the representative elected will reflect the will of the people, including its disenfranchised minorities, may be a different story altogether.

As one of the largest stateless groups in the world, over 1 million Rohingya are now living in exile in the neighboring countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Vietnam; 1.3 million continue to live in Myanmar, where all but 40,000 are stateless. Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 brought a wave of tensions between the ‘native’ Burmese and those who came to Burma after the British takeover in 1824. Perceived by the majority Burmese as migrant Bengalis, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982. This move not only resulted in the exclusion of the Rohingya from a recent national census, but also delegitimized the Rohingya in a country in which they have lived for generations.

Given the Myanmar government’s track record on its treatment of the Rohingya, many human rights activists worldwide greeted the news of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010 as a step forward. In anticipation of Suu Kyi’s ability to rally pro-democracy elements in Myanmar, Canada even awarded honorary citizenship to the Nobel Prize Laureate. However, to the disappointment of many observers, since her release Suu Kyi has tailored her international and domestic presence to suit her political career as leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), instead of campaigning against human rights violations in her own country. Whereas she often emphasizes the gravity of the rule of law and commitment to nonviolence, Suu Kyi has not spoken publicly against the treatment of the Rohingya, likely in order to secure support from Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine region.

When asked about Rohingya citizenship in July 2015, Suu Kyi responded that the Government of Myanmar was in the process of reviewing the 1982 citizenship law and that she urged expediency and transparency in reaching a resounding verdict. Yet, within the same time period the government withdrew 400,000 official identity papers, known as ‘white cards,’ from minority groups – specifically the Rohingya – to prevent them from voting.

Although Myanmar appears to be adapting to its democratic transition, the integrity of the November 2015 election will be judged based on how free, fair and inclusive of its population the process is. In the meantime, the international community hopes that its work of imparting democratic ideals, improving human development and promoting good governance, sustainability and education will be reflected in the actions of the Government of Myanmar. Dialogue between the ruling party (the Union Solidarity Development Party, which is backed by the military), and the international community has taken place, and both the United States and Canada have lauded the nascent democratic nation for its ability to adapt quickly. However, further steps are required in order for the Rohingya to become officially recognized as citizens and for their basic human rights to be restored.

Even though it may seem that Suu Kyi has not provided much help to the Rohingya cause, it is possible that she is biding her time until she can ensure her party’s election. Now is the time for the international community, international human rights organizations and the Government of Canada to provide the positive reinforcement of Myanmar’s achievements; however, it is also an opportunity for the plight of the Rohingya to be brought to international attention. The outcome of the elections will serve as a clear indication of how well the country will continue to develop as a modern democratic state. As the Government of Myanmar recently emphasized in a UN meeting, it still is a developing  country and it should not be judged by first-world standards. Fair as that may be, it by no means should dissuade the international community and especially the Government of Canada from its responsibility to protect the Rohingya. The right to protect stresses the fact that in order for a country’s sovereignty to be respected, it must demonstrate responsibility for its own people – a responsibility that the Government of Myanmar has not assumed. To date, Canada has been participating in the development of its economic and diplomatic ties with Myanmar in order to secure the foundations of democracy, but that is not enough. Following the elections, if the outcome remains unfavorable for the Rohingya, international action must be taken to protect minority rights in Myanmar.


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[1] Nations and organizations that voiced concern over the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar were the following: Japan, Turkey, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Senegal, the Philippines, Thailand, Maarij Foundation for Peace and Development, Cameroon Youths and Students Forum for Peace, Lawyers’ Watch Canada, and the Iranian Elite Research Center.

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