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DODGING ISSUE: The community is without citizenship and protection by state, writes Fuadi Pitsuwan
IT was reported that Aung San Suu Kyi dodged a question on whether the Rohingya are Myanmar citizens. She simply answered "I don't know" to an intrigued student who posed the question to her during a public forum in Europe last month. Her answer was a disappointment, given the fact that the world sees her as the icon of democracy and human rights.
The Rohingya are stateless minority Muslims living in Rakhine (formerly Arkan), the westernmost state of Myanmar bordering Bangladesh. Despite historical records indicating that the majority of them had been in the area of modern-day Myanmar since the early 19th century, the Rohingya have never been recognised by the government as a minority living in the country.
Today, an estimated 800,000 Rohingya are living in Rakhine; 300,000 more have fled persecution to seek refuge in Bangladesh, but they are facing discrimination there, too. There are also large Rohingya diasporas in Thailand and Malaysia.
The military junta's dismal record of protecting minority groups is arguably most apparent in the treatment of the Rohingya. Without citizenship, the Rohingya are not subjected to protection by state.
The focus of international attention has always been to hold the Myanmar government accountable for other minority groups, such as the Kachin, Shan, Chin, Karen, among others, which the government is under legal obligation to provide protection as they are considered citizens of Myanmar by law. Such a focus has left the plight of the Rohingya in limbo.
The rights of the Rohingya have consistently been violated even before the founding of the independent state of Myanmar. Up until 1982, however, it was more hopeful for the Rohingya. The 1948 law concerning citizenship did not exclude the Rohingya and appeared open to any ethnic minorities who had settled in the country for more than two generations.
In 1982, under the government of General Ne Win, the citizenship law was effectively overturned. The Citizenship Act of 1982 recognises 135 ethnic groups, but leaves out what the law terms "non-nationals", which include the Rohingya as well as those of Chinese and Indian descent.
Without citizenship, the Rohingya' freedom of movement is restricted. They are prevented from a formal education and denied healthcare. They need permission to get married and are restricted to two children per family. State authorities have coerced them into forced labour and engaged in other forms of persecution.
Even worse, the Buddhist majority of Myanmar view them with suspicion. Some choose to violently resist the presence of the Rohingya in their community. Human rights violations committed against the Rohingya have been so gross that the United Nations called them "one of the most persecuted minorities in the world".
The positive development in Myanmar since the civilian government took over last year is being overshadowed by the recent spike in violence in Rakhine. The current skirmish, claimed by the Buddhist community as retaliation against the raping and killing of a Buddhist girl by Rohingya men, has resulted in significant loss of life and displacement with contradictory figures depending on sources.
The Myanmar government imposed an emergency decree in the conflict area, but has not been effective in ending violence. Unsurprisingly, the authority appears more sympathetic to the Buddhist side, rather than remaining neutral. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused the authority of actively targeting the Rohingya.
It is upsetting that Suu Kyi, who has come to symbolise humanity's struggle for democracy and human rights, does not have a firm position regarding the plight of the Rohingya.
When giving a speech in Thailand to Myanmar migrants in May, she promised them citizenship. But when pressed on the Rohingya issue, she dodged the question.
Understandably, Suu Kyi's political base, the Buddhist majority, may have prevented her from taking a more concrete stand on the Rohingya issue for fear of alienating her core supporters.
But as a beacon of democracy and human rights, Suu Kyi cannot afford to ignore the plight of the Rohingya. She cannot compromise on her principles and opt for an easier route to reform.
Her support will matter in nudging President Thein Sein's government to include the Rohingya in the reform process. Her leverage in world affairs will draw international attention and put pressure on the Myanmar Parliament to revise the citizenship law.
Continued neglect of the Rohingya by Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government could produce a much more corrosive effect on the country's attempt to embark on the path of democracy.
Systematic abuse of human rights and denial of citizenship could ferment dangerous discontent, leading to an uprising or armed insurgency.
Already, the Rohingya have found their allies in Islamic movements when the Taliban in Pakistan said they would retaliate against the Myanmar government. Indonesian Islamic hardliners also vowed to wage jihad to stop the genocide.
As such, it should be of interest to Suu Kyi and Thein Sein to settle this issue as quickly and peacefully as possible.
For Myanmar to maintain its trajectory of reform, this issue cannot be ignored. In her maiden speech to Parliament, Suu Kyi called for new laws to protect the rights of "ethnic nationalities".
She must not forget that the Rohingya, having lived in Myanmar for centuries, deserve the right to citizenship and protection from the state. They, too, are humans who warrant the chance to participate in the political and economic development of their country.
Suu Kyi and the government should give them that opportunity.
Fuadi Pitsuwan, is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a Belfer IGA Student Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government