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Rohingya's suffering continues under Myanmar's new government

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks as Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi watches him during their joint press conference following a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyitaw on May 22. © AP
By Motokazu Matsui
September 5, 2016

YANGON -- Myanmar's new government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, which was formed at the end of March, is unsympathetic toward the Rohingya people, a persecuted Muslim ethnic minority. Suu Kyi, who also serves as foreign minister, was reluctant to intervene in the Rohingya issue when she was an opposition leader for fear of angering the Buddhist majority. Since she became the de facto government leader, she has yielded to Buddhists' pressure and has even refused to use the term Rohingya. She is facing growing criticism from the international community for appearing to avoid responsibility.

In late April, a boat carrying a full load of Muslim refugees capsized off the coast of Rakhine, a western state of Myanmar, resulting in more than 20 deaths. When the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar expressed condolences for the tragedy of the Rohingya in a statement, angered Buddhists staged protest demonstrations in Yangon and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.

A great majority of the Myanmar people regard Muslims in Rakhine State as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are critical of them calling themselves Rohingya, which originally means Muslims who settled in Myanmar during the British colonial period. It offended them that the U.S. Embassy used the term "Rohingya" in the statement. The demonstrators also called on the new government to use the term Bengalis, which means Bangladeshis, to refer to the people who identify themselves as Rohingya.

Since the time she was a pro-democracy opposition leader, Suu Kyi has consistently kept her distance from religious issues. In the general election last November, she made no mention of the Rohingya issue and did not express her opinions about the government's religious policy. Now that she is in the position of leading the government, she has become much more cautious about the issue.

Soon after the demonstrations took place, Suu Kyi asked the U.S. Embassy to refrain from using the term Rohingya, which could aggravate religious antagonism. In a meeting with resident representatives in Myanmar of international organizations, including the World Bank, she reportedly asked them to avoid exaggerating the Rohingya issue, saying the religious antagonism in Rakhine State is one of the many problems Myanmar has.

Aung San Suu Kyi's stance has disappointed the international community. The U.S. has criticized the Myanmar government's policy on the Rohingya since the days of former President Thein Sein's administration. On May 22, during his visit to Myanmar, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked Suu Kyi again to improve the Rohingya's human rights situation. Suu Kyi set up a special committee in June to secure peace and stability in Rakhine State, becoming its chairperson, but has not accepted the U.S. request to grant citizenship to the Rohingya.

In this year's "Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report," released on June 22, the U.S. downgraded Myanmar to Tier 3, the lowest grade. Myanmar had been rated Tier 3 until 2010 in the annual human trafficking report, but it was upgraded a notch to Tier 2 Watch List in 2011 and stayed on the list as it underwent democratization. The first downgrading in five years can be seen as the U.S.'s "punishment" for the new government.

The United Nations also pointed out in a report on Myanmar's human rights problems released on June 20 that violence against Rohingya was increasing in the country. Yanghee Lee, a special U.N. rapporteur, visited Myanmar around the same time and requested the new government to have a third party investigate the Rohingya's human rights situation. A Rohingya man who has lived in Thailand for over 25 years said he had expected before the start of the new government that the situation would be improved, but that he was disappointed that nothing had changed.

On July 21, the religious composition of Myanmar's population based on a national census conducted in 2014 was published. The population ratio of domestic Muslims was 4.3%, a modest rise from 3.9% in the previous census in 1983. Before the data was released, some analysts estimated that the percentage of Muslim population would reach a double digit, and there were voices of concern that the publication of the survey results might intensify the religious hostility.

In the country, a nationalist Buddhist organization that calls for the exclusion of Muslims remains influential. In Rakhine State, the Arakan National Party, an ethnic political party that became the third-largest group in the national legislature through the latest general election, pushes forward its anti-Muslim principle and tries to prevent the government from helping the Rohingya. Suu Kyi remains in a predicament, pressured by both the ANP and the international community.

In Rakhine State, as a result of massive clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, more than 120,000 Muslims remain isolated in refugee camps. It is difficult to expect that the change of government will improve their situation.

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