Some recent announcements by the Myanmar government should reassure all those who want to see democracy restored in this Southeast Asian country. Parliamentary elections planned for November this year promise to be much more transparent and inclusive than the one held in 2010. President Thein Sein has approved a law allowing a referendum on changes to the constitution. This has given hopes to supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), that a ban on her from the presidency may eventually be lifted.
If Suu Kyi, the most popular politician in Myanmar and a Nobel laureate, is barred from running for president because her late husband and two sons are foreign citizens, the tragedy of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is that they are not citizens of a country where their ancestors have been living since the seventh century.
They can’t participate in the election because they are noncitizens or the so-called white-card holders. Rohingyas can’t vote in the constitutional referendum or the general election because of a presidential ruling in February stripping them of suffrage. Worse still, their white cards will expire tomorrow forcing them to face a future which is as bleak as one can imagine.
NLD has already expelled more than 20,000 temporary identification card holders from the party’s membership. The other registered political parties (nearly 70) may follow suit to comply with a legislative mandate barring noncitizens from democratic process.
From tomorrow onward, white card holders, who also include an unknown number of ethnic Chinese, Kokang and Wa minorities, may also find it difficult to travel around the country due to a lack of identity document.
There are an estimated 800,000 to 1.1 million Rohingyas. Of some eight million Muslims in Myanmar, about one in six is Rohingya. A people who live mostly in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, Rohingyas were forced to take white cards because a 1982 law disqualified them from any citizenship claims they might have had.
To make matters worse, the Myanmar government even does not want anyone to utter the term Rohingya because they are all “Bengalis”, a term used to legitimize denial of citizenship and rights to the group, though early Muslim settlements in Rakhine date from the seventh century. The term Rohingya was absent from last year’s landmark census.
Myanmar officials even chastised UN Secretary General Ban KI-moon and US President Barack Obama for using the term Rohingya when they visited Myanmar last year to attend the ASEAN Summit held in Naypyidaw.
They visited Myanmar immediately after the country had gone through one of its periodic spasms of ethnic violence that in the past two and a half years have killed hundreds of Rohingyas. As many as 140,000 of them were forced to displacement camps.
Since then, their condition has only worsened as Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar points out in her latest report, says she saw “no improvement” for displaced Rohingyas since her previous visit in July 2014.
Such is the hatred of the majority Buddhists toward the Rohingyas that during her latest visit in January this year, Lee was publicly denounced as a “whore” and “bitch” by a prominent monk.
The fact is Rohinglyas are the victims not merely of official policies but of ethnic and religious tensions created by some radical monks. This is what makes them despair of political reforms in Myanmar. In general, democracy works to the advantage of minorities, giving the most disadvantaged people a voice in the decision-making process. But Rohingyas know that democracy can also be used to raise suspicions and create fears about minorities in the minds of the majority. While the government intensifies its campaign of hate, who would risk votes of the majority by supporting a despised minority?
This places an additional responsibility on the international community who have released a statement affirming their support for free and fair polls in Myanmar. Of course, they should keep a watch on the conduct of elections so the government machinery is not used to intimidate its opponents or help those who would side with them. They must take steps to prevent the electoral politics in Myanmar degenerating into a race to decide who can say the most bigoted things about a helpless minority. More important, they must ensure that the options before Rohingyas are not “to stay and die or to leave by boat,” as Lee’s report to the UN Human Rights Council put it starkly.