Since 2010, when a democratic government was elected for the first time in 50 years, the people of Myanmar have had ample reasons to celebrate the country’s growing democracy. However, for nearly a million Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar, there is little to celebrate. Widespread violence against the Rohingya erupted in June 2012 and sporadically continues today. In one incident, police in Rakhine fired on a crowd of Rohingya Muslims who demanded the release of a deceased Rohingya fisherman’s body that was being held by the police. The gunshots killed eight people and injured many others. Yet, the government of Myanmar has done little to suppress communal violence against Rohingya Muslims, and local authorities are further perpetuating human rights abuse.
The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar extends beyond ad hoc violence to include government policies that are blatantly discriminatory. Presently, a Rohingya woman is only permitted to have two children, and Rohingya men are prohibited from marrying Buddhist women. Even more pejorative than these laws is the government’s refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship. Without citizenship, the Rohingya do not benefit from the rule of law or the protection of the state. Furthermore, the Rohingya lack access to basic services and are limited in their ability to travel. The situation in western Myanmar has escalated to such a point that Human Rights Watch has describe it as an “ethnic cleansing.”
The spread of the 969 Movement—representing the nine characteristics of the Buddha, the six characteristics of his teaching, and the nine characteristics of the Sangha monastic order—has also become a great source of concern. The movement views Myanmar’s Muslims as a threat to its Buddhist culture, despite the fact that Muslims comprise only 10 percent of the country’s population. The 969 Movement has proven to be capable of using strong rhetoric to solicit public support. Reputable local businesses have joined in the Movement’s commitment to refuse service to Muslims. The rise of the Movement and its infiltration into mainstream society demonstrates that discrimination against Rohingya Muslims is rampant throughout the entire country.
It is important to understand that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims is a phenomenon that has developed into an institutionalized practice over time. Violent acts against the minority Rohingya date as far back as the 1978 “Dragon King” operation, which saw the Myanmar army carrying out mass killing and rape of Rohingya civilians, destruction of mosques, and the fleeing of 200,000 Rohingya to neighboring countries. These state-sponsored violent acts have been supplemented by legislative measures that negatively single out the Rohingya community and inhibit their voice from being heard. The 1982 Citizenship Law, for example, was unprecedented in its complete disregard of the Rohingya as an ethnic group, even though Rohingya Muslims can trace their lineage in Myanmar back centuries. It has effectively rendered the Rohingya stateless and blocked avenues for their progress within Myanmar. This institutional discrimination has provided justification for the discrimination against the Rohingya by the general population as well. The actions and messages of the government have led the people of Myanmar to view the Rohingya as an intrusion to Myanmar, thereby legitimizing hostility towards them.
For the entirety of the military dictatorship in Myanmar, the government has not respected civil and political rights. This has taken the form of arbitrary arrests, control over the press, political imprisonment, and an ongoing disregard for human life by security forces, all of which continue to exist even after the 2011-2012 democratic reforms. Many NGOs, international organizations, and state officials have identified ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch has labeled policies such as the two-child limit placed on the Rohingya as “callous and cruel” persecution. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highly criticized Myanmar’s handling of the ongoing sectarian violence, calling on the government to address the citizenship demands of the Rohingya. Nevertheless, the government in Myanmar remains silent.
The history of fundamental human rights violations and their continuation suggest that the government is an unreliable avenue for change in Myanmar, regardless of its promises to further democratize. Rather, the key to tangible change in Myanmar’s human rights situation lies in the actions of foreign governments and NGOs. Credible NGOs must be allowed not only to provide aid in Myanmar, but also to develop programs to educate people on human rights and civil society. Due to the long history of human rights violations, the people of Myanmar currently lack a solid understanding of what constitutes fundamental human rights. The presence of NGOs and other external organizations operating in Myanmar for human rights education provides an avenue for the general population to gain a better understanding of how society can live in peace in spite of ideological differences and perceived minority threats. Moreover, foreign governments must continue to condemn the actions of the Myanmar government, when appropriate, and engage their elected officials in dialogue to discuss the implementation of responsible human rights policies. With Myanmar moving towards considerable development and having the potential for foreign investment, disparaging comments critical of the country’s human rights conditions can have a profoundly negative impact on future development opportunities.
Myanmar’s acknowledgement of its human rights violations is necessary to create substantive change in conditions of human rights in the nation. When exiled members of Myanmar’s media criticized the repressive policies toward the press, the government responded by inviting those exiled to draft new policy with the help of UNESCO. Prior to backing down some on censorship, Myanmar released hundreds of political prisoners in 2011 as a small step to address international pressure and signal that the country was committed to reform. The importance of raising awareness and remaining critical of the Myanmar government cannot be understated as such criticism from the international community has proven to be an effective catalyst for change and accountability. While the developing democracy in Myanmar should be considered, it is difficult for many leaders to accept the legitimacy of Myanmar’s democracy when the government allows human rights violations to continue almost unadulterated. Outside advocacy and influence from strong world leaders is needed to compel the government of Myanmar to extend citizenship to minorities such as the Rohingya and prevent violence through the adequate deployment of competent police forces. Without such compelling voices calling for action, Myanmar will continue to be content with the status quo of human rights violations occurring within its borders. If the Rohingya can live without fear of persecution in Myanmar, it will be as a result of outside pressure on a government that responds to such criticism and provides protection for a minority struggling to survive.