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Recent protests highlight urgency of Burma’s Rohingya crisis

(Photo: AP)

By Casey Hynes
February 16, 2015

After a brief window of hope earlier last week, Rohingya in Burma’s Rakhine State were once again shut out of the political system after protesters demanded they be barred from participating in an upcoming referendum. The Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in Burma, and are frequently the targets of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence. Despite the fact that many Rohingya were born in Burma and that their families have lived in the country for generations, the government refuses to recognize them as citizens, insisting that they are refugees from Bangladesh and must therefore identify as Bengali.

Things were looking ever-so-slightly up for the persecuted minority last week, when the government said it would issue Rohingya white cards, documents that would allow them to vote. However, the government backtracked on that after Buddhist nationalist protesters demanded that they reverse course.

Anti-Rohingya sentiment has simmered and occasionally reached a boiling point in Rakhine State since 2012. The situation for Rohingya is dire, as many are forced to flee the country or live in crowded, sparse camps. The lack of recognition of their citizenship is a huge barrier to them defending their rights. Buddhist-Muslim violence has also spread to other parts of the country, but tensions are particularly concentrated in Rakhine state.

“Many Rakhine feel that if Rohingya are legally recognized, then they’ll encroach on Rakhine culture, land, and resources,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder and executive director of the organization Fortify Rights. “It’s a genuine fear.”

As noted in the Washington Post, Burma has made rapid, significant progress in recent years, welcoming foreign investment and paving the way for groundbreaking innovations in the country. But it is still a nation rife with human rights violations, and the Rohingya continue to suffer regularly, particularly due to what Smith describes as a “base discrimination against Muslims” that “permeates everything in Rakhine State.”

Reuters described the dark situation faced by Rohingya in a June 2014 piece that addressed a nationalist campaign to constrict the amount of humanitarian aid provided to the community of one million, including 140,000 displaced people.

Smith criticized the government’s lack of action on protection for the Rohingya.

“Thein Sein is playing politics in all the wrong ways,” he said. “The sign of a great leader is a willingness to take principled positions on unpopular issues, and we’re just not seeing that from [Burma’s] political elite. That’s because some actually believe the nonsense they preach on this issue, while others demonstrate political cowardice.”

Human rights groups and advocates have condemned the treatment of the Rohingya, and Human Rights Watch described the appalling situation as an ethnic cleansing campaign. Nonetheless, they have so far been left behind when it comes to official policy and the government often seems on the side of nationalists who resent and oppose the Rohingyas’ place in Burma. Indeed, Smith said, “the government has been fanning anti-Rohingya flames for years and continues to do so. It’s irresponsible.” The situation in Rakhine is far from stable, with locals nervous about the potential for violent flare-ups.

“Local Rakhine in Sittwe have told us they’re nervous there will be more violence, and the protests are a worrying sign,” Smith said. “If anything, the protests are representative of the simmering anger and unchecked misunderstandings in the state.”

Smith said that the Rohingya crisis has already given pause to some foreign investors and is a concern for some in the diplomatic community. But a sustained campaign of documenting violence and abuses against the Rohingya, and consistent, widespread pressure for their recognition is the only way to ensure these criminal behaviors will stop.

It’s up to the government to take a firm stand in favor of the Rohingya and “combat deep-seeded discriminatory and hateful attitudes,” but it’s also up to the international community to hold the government accountable, Smith said. U.S. President Barack Obama urged the Burmese government to act on behalf of the Rohingya, but little has improved since that visit. Even iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been reluctant to explicitly take up their cause.

“There’s a well-founded fear that the Rohingya will be sacrificed by the international community on the altar of political reform, and we’re already seeing that from some corners,” Smith said. “There’s not nearly enough outrage in the international community about what’s happening in Rakhine state, and there’s a trend of compromise on Rohingya rights in the name of pragmatism. That’s truly detrimental to long term stability in the region.”

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