Increasingly and central to the perception of democratic progress in Myanmar by diplomats and international organizations is the issue of the Rohingya population, about one million in the country, today considered the most persecuted minority in the world.
They are denied citizenship in Myanmar, where they have resided for a long time, especially in Rakhine State overlooking the Bay of Bengal; barely tolerated in Bangladesh where in 300-500 thousand they live in desperate conditions in camps fueling the local labour market, the trafficking in young women – often mere adolescents – for the local and Indian market for prostitution and a lucrative trafficking of human beings elsewhere in the region. Another 150 thousand finished up in the camps in Myanmar to escape persecution, living there from 2012 in substantial apartheid conditions. An ethnic group not even recognized as such. For the Burmese they are in fact illegal immigrants from the areas of present-day Bangladesh (a state which has only existed since 1971) even though they have lived for decades in Burmese territory; for the Bangladeshis they are Burmese refugees and as such have no right to citizenship.
Indeed, in a country where Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the heroine of the nonviolent struggle against the military dictatorship, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and now with a multiple role of government after her National League for Democracy swept the elections of November 2015, does not even want that the term ‘Rohingya’ be used to define this ethnic group. The recognition of their identity, would in fact implicitly validate their rights in Burmese territory and it is not by chance that are they not included in the list of 135 ethnic groups recognized by the Constitution. Two incidents recently brought attention to the Rohingya (and raised again the tension between Naypyitaw and Washington). In April, the sinking of a boat of Rohingya boat people off the Burmese coast, with a balance of 20 deaths, prompted the US embassy to send a message of condolence to the government. An initiative that launched protests at the embassy in Yangon and a Burmese Foreign Ministry communication to challenge the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ and state a preference for that of ‘Bengali’, or in other words illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
More recently, in early May, the same ‘lady of Burmese democracy’ criticized the term’s use by the new US ambassador, Scot A. Marciel. The US, Marciel confirmed in a press conference on 28 April, will continue to use the word ‘Rohingya’ since it is international practice to recognize the communities by the name chosen by themselves. However, for the Burmese democratic politicians, who are affected by the need to concretise their control over the country in a difficult confrontation with the generals and nationalist forces, the choice seems to be to not antagonize the extremists – whether inspired religiously, or by economic interest and by the military themselves – for fear of consequences in the 2020 elections and in an attempt to amend the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to compete in the near future for the presidential office.
It is difficult to see a possibility for development in the situation of the Rohingya. Despite the pressure exerted by the United States and the United Kingdom on the Burmese government and the League, which they both actively supported over the years in opposition, and after victory until it might be able to govern the country. If the NLD were to think about granting citizenship to the Rohingya, this should be preceded by the elimination of the four laws passed last year with a road map inspired by the military and by extremist Buddhism which are grouped all together under the denomination of ‘Laws for the protection of race and religion’. Targeted primarily at limiting the rights of Muslims, even those of the Burmese ethnic group, were they to remain in force they would do so to foster new tensions and new repression against this minority to which between 4 and 10 percent of the population belong.
The opposition of the National League for Democracy to these laws during the parliamentary debates could justify a process for their elimination within a broader reform momentum. However, the priorities of the majority appear at present to be different, and the risk of friction with the military still too high. (S.V.)