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

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UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited displacement camps in Rakhine in December, observed: "People from both communities ... are living in fear and want to go back to living a normal life. There is an urgent need for reconciliation."

If these ethnic and religious clashes are truly “internal affairs of a sovereign state” as the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, then now is the time for the government to exercise responsible sovereignty and encourage tolerance locally.

President Thein Sein has established a 27-member Internal Investigation Commission to identify the root causes of inter-communal unrest. Deplorably, not a single Rohingya sits on the commission.

Amb. Ufuk Gokcen, permanent observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the UN, exhorts Mr. Thein Sein to reach out to and talk with the Rohingya community. “Without a courageous political discourse and leadership on the part of the Government and opposition together, Government cannot initiate and sell to the nation an action to grant citizenship to Rohingya,” the ambassador says.

President Obama, too, has remarked on the unrest in Rakhine State. “For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” he said at Yangon University in Myanmar on Nov. 19, during his historic visit to the country.

Granting citizenship to the nearly 800,000 Rohingya Muslims will accelerate Myanmar’s gradual increase in civil liberties and political freedom. Obtaining support from Buddhist monks would be key to gaining popular support for the change. Buddhists comprise almost 85 percent of Myanmar’s population. If the country’s Buddhist monks were to vocally support extending citizenship to Rohingya, then the stateless minority would have well-founded hope for recognition.

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