Rohingya: Testing Democracy in Myanmar
José Ramos-Horta and Muhammad Yunus
One of the fundamental challenges of a democracy is how to ensure the
voice of the majority does not trample the essential rights of the
minority. In the founding of the United States this was addressed by
the Bill of Rights, some form of which is integrated into most
Even as we applaud and rejoice in the new freedoms enjoyed by the
Myanmar people, the country's newly elected government must face this
challenge as they evolve from autocratic rule into a democratic state.
The tragedy of the Rohingya people, continuing to unfold in Rakhine
State in the country's western corner, on the border of Bangladesh,
will be its proving ground.
The minority Muslim Rohingya continue to suffer unspeakable
persecution, with more than 1,000 killed and hundreds of thousands
displaced from their homes just in recent months, apparently with the
complicity and protection of security forces.
The charge that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants to Myanmar is
false. There is evidence that the Rohingya have been in present day
Myanmar since the 8th century. It is incontrovertible that Muslim
communities have existed in Rakhina State since the 15th century,
added to by descendants of Bengalis migrating to Arakan (Rakhine)
during colonial times.
The borders between present-day Bangladesh and Myanmar have shifted
back and forth throughout these periods, resulting in ethnic Rakhine
Buddhists living in Bangladesh today, and ethnic Bengali Muslims such
as the Rohingya in Myanmar. As the Rahkine Buddhists are rooted in
their Bangladeshi communities today, the Rakhine State in Myanmar is
the only home the Rohingya know.
A glaring injustice was done to the Rohingya in 1982 when the ruling
junta instituted a new law excluding the Rohingya from the list of the
135 national races recognized by the Myanmar government, effectively
stripping them of their nationality. Since that time they have been
banned from travelling even short distances or from getting married
without a permit. When a marriage permit is granted, they must sign a
commitment to have no more than two children.
Half of the Rohingya population is estimated to have fled the periodic
pogroms that have reduced their villages to ashes and left thousands
killed or raped in horrendous massacres. After having lived side by
side with the Rakhine Buddhist communities, today they are an uprooted
and stateless population, with some 200,000 refugees estimated to
still be living in neighboring Bangladesh and hundreds of thousands
more having fled to other parts of the world.
The 20th century gave us a term for the ugly phenomena of stripping
individuals of their nationality and persecuting them for no reason
other than the color of their skin, their religion, or their
ethnicity: ethnic cleansing.
When the Myanmar government considers its progress on reform toward an
open and democratic system of government, they must address one of the
most barbaric remnants of their recent past, ethnic cleansing taking
place in their midst, and right the wrongs done to the Rohingya
We wish the Rohingya to know that they are not alone. We hope to help
share their plight with the world, in the hope and faith and trust
that when the world knows of their suffering it will no longer turn
its back on their persecution.
We humbly add our voices to the simple demand of the Rohingya people:
that their rights as our fellow human beings be respected, that they
be granted the right to live peacefully and without fear in the land
of their parents, and without persecution for their ethnicity or their
form of worship.
We ask the world to not look away, but to raise its collective voice
in support of the Rohingya. In these days of public diplomacy the
citizens, civil societies, NGOs, private investors and the business
community have a vital role to play in the context of democratic
reforms, human rights and development around the globe. We must use
We close with an appeal to the Myanmar government. You must amend the
infamous 1982 law, and welcome the Rohingya as full citizens of
Myanmar with all attendant rights. In doing so you will end the
possibility of the radicalization of the Rohingya and channel their
energies for the development of Myanmar. You will remove the impetus
for extremism and terrorism being generated by the current
mistreatment of this vulnerable minority. A strong, stable and
democratic Myanmar is not only in the interest to countries of the
region, but will serve the cause of global peace and stability as
A government must in the end be judged by how it protects the most
vulnerable people in its midst, and its generosity towards the weakest
and most powerless. Let not the good work of this government be
clouded by the continuing persecution of the Rohingya people.
Jose Ramos-Horta is Former President of Timor Leste and the 1996 Nobel
Peace Prize laureate. Muhammad Yunus is Founder and Former Managing
Director of Grameen Bank and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
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