Rohingya Muslims are considered to be the most persecuted minority in the world. This fact is recognized by the United Nations and by almost all human rights organizations. Several prominent international human rights activists have noted that Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to massive ethnic cleansing in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a predominantly Buddhist country in Southeast Asia.
The military government in Myanmar has deprived these hapless people of their citizenship after considering them to be illegal residents who migrated from Bangladesh irrespective of the fact that they are an ethnic community who have been living in the northwestern Rakhine state since the 8th century CE.
Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to persecution and injustice; they have been killed and driven out of their homes. Their houses and mosques have been torched and their properties seized. Those who escaped torture managed to run away to neighboring countries. Buddhist extremists are perpetrating crimes against these hapless people with the clandestine support and blessing of the military government which ruled the country for more than half a century. The military junta still wields its influence in the upper echelons of the state under a constitution which it has framed. However, the military government held general elections in November during which Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party – the National League for Democracy – won a sweeping victory and is now set to take over as the head of a democratic government in the country.
Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for more than a decade by the military junta and this helped her to garner global sympathy and support. She was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and the growing global pressure in favor of her forced the military government to end her house arrest. However, the government imposed restrictions in order to prevent her from taking over power in the country. These include the condition that those citizens who married foreigners or have children from foreign spouses are disqualified from assuming power as the head of the country’s government. Suu Kyi was married to a Briton and the couple had two children. Moreover, the army took control of 25 percent of parliamentary seats as well as some key cabinet portfolios.
It was evident that Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, while serving as opposition leader, avoided reacting to the atrocities being perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims. She also declined to comment on the criticism leveled against the military government by prominent rights activists from various parts of the world. It is unfortunate that Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against the plight of the Rohingya. The continuous persecution of these hapless people has not prompted her to break her long silence on the issue.
She did not even respond to criticism leveled against her by some Nobel laureates. They accused her of sacrificing fundamental principles and human values for the sake of political gains with an eye to gaining the votes of the Buddhist majority. However, some of them defended her by drawing attention to her limitations in the prevailing situation in the country where the majority community is hostile to Rohingyas.
Even after the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s party in the parliamentary elections, the military still controls the state’s affairs. They consider themselves to be the saviors of the constitution. Any political reform in the country is possible only by making the necessary amendments to the constitution and this can be done only with the blessing of the military leadership. The military commander recently indicated that major constitutional reforms are on the anvil. This means that the military would continue wielding control over the government in future as well. Any attempt to change the status quo without the consent of the military might lead to the toppling of the government and the return of military rule to the country as in the case of several other countries in the Third World. It will not be easy to restore the usurped rights of Rohingya Muslims. The opposition leader Suu Kyi, who won the election, does not seem to be willing or able to stop the atrocities and crimes being perpetrated against these people. Hence, I believe that there is a need for further international pressure, including tough sanctions even against the democratic government to be formed by Suu Kyi this month.
International and regional bodies such as the United Nations, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and ASEAN must take the initiative, including convening international conferences, with the objective of ending the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Similarly, it is the moral and humanitarian responsibility of neighboring states, especially Muslim states, to stand by these people who in the words of South African bishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu are facing slow genocide.
Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org