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Sickening treatment of the Rohingya continues

August 23, 2015

Passing of laws relating to religious conversion and polygamy shows Myanmar's parliament cares little about human rights

A country long associated with gross human rights violations, Myanmar, also known as Burma, is now trying to regulate private faith. 

But judging the atmosphere and conditions leading up to the passing of two laws in Nay Pyi Taw recently, morality was not high on the mind of Myanmar's parliamentarians. The bills regulate religious conversion and polygamy.

Buddhist nationalists with strong anti-Muslim sentiment were the people who came up with the idea behind these bills. They believe the country's Muslims are a threat to Myanmar. It wasn't clear how Muslims, one of the many minority groups in the country, constitute such a threat. 

But the main target appeared to be the Rohingya Muslim population, a persecuted minority who are not even recognised as citizens despite many having lived in the country for generations. 

"These discriminatory draft laws risk fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said after the bills were passed.

The fact that these bills were passed just ahead of a general election, which is expected to take place in November, should not be overlooked. This is not to say that election, an important component of democratisation, should not be permitted. 

But the passing of these bills as the politicians went on the campaign trail says something about the kind of politics and politicians that Myanmar possesses.

"Parliament has not only shown disregard for basic human rights norms, but turned up the heat on Burma's tense intercommunal relations and potentially put an already fragile transition at risk, with landmark elections right around the corner," Robertson said.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and champion of democracy, has been largely silent about the plight of the Rohingya. 

Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, who lived under house arrest for about 15 years, is expected to win the election. Fellow Nobel laureates, like the Dalai Lama, have urged her to take a stand on the Rohingya's plight. And if she hasn't speaks now, it is hard to imagine she will change her mind after the election, as it would be seen as a betrayal of her party supporters.

Although the country has opened up to outsiders and committed itself to the path of democratisation, as well as a peace process with armed ethnic rebel armies, the country's lawmakers, backed by radical monks, government leaders and an angry Buddhist population, continue to persecute the Rohingya via a series of discriminatory regulations and laws. The government even tried to limit the number of children that Rohingya can have.

And if fellow Asean members think this is not their problem, they need to think again.

The apartheid-like conditions that many Rohingya live in have forced tens of thousands to flee on overcrowded boats and headed for live elsewhere. Many have died on these crowded boats, while others became victims of slave labour in various industries, including Thai fishing vessels. 

Myanmar's appalling treatment of the Rohingya constitutes an early warning sign of genocide. The second-class status, government-built camps, - plans to curb movement, plus social mobility and basic well-being of the Rohingya are already in the pipeline. 

Moreover, international media and human rights groups have shown that many of the violent attacks against the Rohingya were not just carried out by angry mobs but also facilitated by government security officials. 

Given what the Rohingya and the Muslims in general face, it is pretty much left to the international community, particularly the country's main donors, to condemn these acts and pressure the country to change its course. 

Issuing statement after statement to criticise the military-dominate government can only do so much. Thailand is a perfect example of how so-called concerns expressed on paper do not change anything. 

They need to take the away the money. Perhaps that will get these nationalists to pay attention to things such as international norms and human decency.

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