Glimmer of hope for the Rohingya on Human Rights Day

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner’s Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) and the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week, the U.S. House of Representatives continues to take on an issue that shows our increasing need to stand against the human rights violations that continue to plague many despite signs of progress.

The Rohingya Muslims, a small Burmese minority community, currently facing what many human rights authorities have called an “ethnic cleansing” look toward the U.S. House with a glimmer of hope this week as the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific holds a markup session on House Resolution 418 entitled “Urging the Government of Burma to end the persecution of the Rohingya people and respect internationally recognized human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups within Burma.”

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The story of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya has gone largely untold. Comprising less than 10 percent of the population of Burma, the Rohingya are an Islamic ethnic group in the majority Buddhist Burma. In mid-2012, longstanding prejudices exploded into full-blown sectarian violence and massacre. Various instances of violent crimes committed by Buddhist individuals, including the destruction of Muslim homes and businesses, have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee. The targeted violence has become so grave that the Rohingya have been recognized by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. After more than a year’s worth of persecution, there has at last been an initiative to recognize and call to accountability the powers that can prevent further harm through House Resolution 418.

Currently, the Rohingya minority is not recognized as a legitimate ethnic community and has had to endure the complete disregard of the government. Institutionalized marginalization such as this persistent non-recognition has led to increased sectarian violence against the Rohingya people in Burma.

The most prominent world powers should always be committed to upholding the principles of basic human rights, but the practicality of this ideal has presented problems for international leaders who must consider the political consequences of such a commitment. Burma has gained much international praise for abandoning an autocratic military junta and transitioning into a democracy. The world has reacted by lifting sanctions and preparing for normalized diplomatic relations with a country that has been isolated for decades. The human rights abuses occurring in Burma have meanwhile been lost in the shuffle, seemingly given a pass by the international community simply because the nation has promised democratic reform. We must bring new light to the fundamental abuses of human rights on this historical day.

Today, the international community can increase public awareness to bring further scrutiny to the atrocities that have occurred in Burma and hold them accountable. A government that calls itself a democracy remains disingenuous to this cause if the voices of an entire community are systematically shut out.

The Rohingya have been the victims of violence and institutionalized discrimination that has gone unmitigated and unpunished by a government that seems content to allow such acts to be carried out. While Buddhist mobs rampantly destroy the lives of the Rohingya and untold numbers are forced to flee or face death, security forces have been observed standing idle or even encouraging aggression. The motivation and willingness of the Burmese government to protect its own people will be of paramount importance if widespread change regarding minority populations is to take hold. Unfortunately, there has been little indication that such perceptions exist within the transitional government. Together the international community can change the perception of the Burmese government and save the Rohingya people from a volatile and life threatening environment.

Should the situation continue to be ignored, the hostile environment surrounding the Rohingya will continue to worsen and the possibility of full scale ethnic cleansing will rise. The world has already suffered the consequences of complacency when dealing with previous instances of ethnic conflict. The time to act is long overdue.

On the 20th anniversary of human rights day, I call on the international community to apply consistent political pressure on the Burmese government to end the persecution of the Rohingya and extend them full citizenship rights. Furthermore, coming a day before the markup session on Resolution 418, Human Rights Day is a prime opportunity for the US Government, through the continued development of Resolution 418, to insist that Burma recognize the suffering its own people and take measures in enforcing security for them. Together we can fight for the fundamental human rights of the Rohingya people and fight for the true institution of democracy in Burma.

Uddin is director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union.