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Myanmar's urgent human rights need: citizenship for 'the Roma of Asia'

Myanmar (Burma) has a long way to go on human rights. An issue that demands immediate attention is a crisis involving a sizable ethnic and religious group, the Rohingya – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. This stateless people deserve citizenship and tolerance.

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A Myanmar soldier stands guard at the Bawdupa refugee camp for Muslims in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar on Jan. 8. Sectarian violence last year between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya forced many people, mostly Rohingya, into squalid camps. Op-ed contributor Benjamin J. Hayford writes: 'The first action needed is to recognize 800,000 Muslim Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar.'

Khin Maung Win/AP

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The move toward greater freedom and representative government in Myanmar (Burma) over the last few years is a welcome one. But President Thein Sein and his associates in the military have a long way to go toward achieving democracy, human rights, and a market economy.

One area of human rights that demands immediate attention is a crisis involving a sizable ethnic and religious group, the Rohingya – one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to the United Nations.

Imagine life as part of a society that lacks a formal national identity. Now picture that society, devoid of citizenship, being persecuted for having different religious beliefs than the surrounding ethnicities within the country – barred from owning land, traveling, or even attending school.

This is the life of nearly 800,000 people in state of Rakhine, in western Myanmar. They have been called the “the Roma of Asia.” Rendered stateless by the passage of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya, who are Muslim, are heavily impoverished and lack economic development. Unclaimed by the Burmese, who view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingya are disenfranchised and vulnerable.

Tensions in Rakhine State between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities last June and October led to violent clashes and dozens of deaths. About 115,000 people were internally displaced, the vast majority of them Rohingya. Many of their homes were burned to the ground.

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