A police checkpoint at a Rohingya area of Sittwe, Rakhine State’s capital. Source: Wikimedia
Now Aung San Suu Kyi, as Myanmar’s de facto prime minister, has freed many of the political prisoners who were rotting in filthy jails, the next priority for her civilian administration is to improve the plight of the union’s minorities.
The sight of more than 100 student activists being dragged through the courts while detained on repressive anti-protest laws was intolerable under a democratic government, but the plight of the Rohingyas is no less pressing.
Less visible in remote Rakhine State, which remains cut off from the rest of Myanmar by poor roads, hill ranges and large rivers, the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority normally only comes to global attention when boatloads of starving refugees arrive on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The USA has called on the Nay Pyi Taw to end abusive policies towards the 1.1-million-strong community. And the outspoken defence of a Muslim minority emanates without any sense of irony from the nation that gave the world Guantanamo Bay, indiscriminate drone strikes, Fallujah, extraordinary rendition and waterboarding.
While the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the National League for Democracy-led government for releasing a proportion of political prisoners, freedom of religion needed to be protected and discrimination against minorities should end, it said.
“One such step is Burma’s government radically changing its abusive policies and practices in Rakhine state, which have harmed members of the ethnic communities who live there, especially Rohingya Muslims,” the agency announced.
It called for legal changes to end official discrimination against minorities, including Christians and Rohingya and other Muslims, primarily the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya are often referred to as “Bengalis” in the Burmese media to imply they are immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, rather than a distinct ethnic group who have lived in the region for centuries.
The commission called for Myanmar to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, improve access to humanitarian aid for displaced groups and allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief unrestricted access.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should be free to open a mission, the report added, pointing to the Rohingya, most of whom remain stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions.
In March, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the country, said the first civilian-led administration since 1962 could break the “tragic status quo”.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi has remained tight-lipped on the Rohingya issue, in spite of her status as a human rights icon, presumably for fear of losing support among the Buddhist majority.
The Rohingya are widely maligned in Myanmar, including by some in Suu Kyi’s party, and her political opponents often accuse her of being pro-Muslim.
US sanctions remain in place against the now largely democratic country and the Washington government and influential members of Congress still have concerns about human rights.
US law allows for sanctions on states the USCIRF terms of particular concern, but its recommendations are not binding on Congress.
Meanwhile, the US State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2015 also said the Rohingya minority experienced “severe legal, economic and social discrimination”, with the then quasi-civilian government limiting access to higher education, health care and other basic services.
“The government required them to receive prior approval for travel outside their village . . . and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses or teachers,” the State Department reported.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party while in office disenfranchised many Rohingya who had voted in earlier elections, and barred “almost all Rohingya and many Muslim candidates” from the November 8 election, the State Department reported.
More than 130,000 Rohingya still live in filthy refugee camps following violent clashes with Buddhists in 2012, the report said.
When asked about situation in Rakhine State, Suu Kyi has repeated the bland line that there has been suffering on both sides of the ethnic divide, neglecting the fact that most violence has been inflicted on the Rohingya minority.
Elsewhere in the report, government forces were accused of abducting, torturing and killing civilians in conflicts that occur around Myanmar’s border regions, the State Department reported.
There are around 22 ethnic minority, rebel armies challenging Nay Pyi Taw’s authority with some boasting large arsenals and thousands of troops.
“Civilians also were killed through indiscriminate use of force,” the report stated.
The outside world will see evidence of progress for the Rohingyas if the refugees in wretched tugboats do not appear on the Bay of Bengal before the monsoon rains disrupt the seas. Progress on the many civil wars that have rumbled on for decades will be harder to quantify and present Suu Kyi with her greatest challenge.