A U.S. government commission called on the Myanmar government on Thursday to end rights abuses against the country’s Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority group, hoping that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will sort out a better deal for them under the new government.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also minister of foreign affairs and the President’s Office, has already earned high praise both inside and outside Myanmar for pushing for the release of political prisoners and detained students who were awaiting trial for participating in protests against national education policy last year.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s statement urges the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and her proxy President Htin Kyaw to protect freedom of religion or belief.
“Many have struggled their entire lives for freedom for their country, their families, and themselves,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George in the statement.
“Under the leadership of President U [honorific] Htin Kyaw and Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi, the government now must guarantee to them the rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights covenants, including the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief for all,” he said.
The group said the government must “radically” change its abusive policies towards the 1.1 million Rohingya, most of whom live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“The government denies them citizenship, freedom of movement, access to health care, and other basic services, and in 2015 revoked their voting rights and denied them and other Muslims the ability to contest elections,” the statement said.
USCIRF also pointed out that the former government under Thein Sein had implemented a series of “race and religion laws” backed by nationalist Buddhists last year.
“Each of these laws discriminates against and restricts the religious freedom of non-Buddhists, particularly Muslims,” the statement said.
The Myanmar government has not issued a response to the statement. All government ministries are closed this week for the Thingyan New Year holiday.
USCIRF also urged the current government, which took over on April 1, to abolish discriminatory laws, including the 1982 Citizenship Law, which has deprived the Rohingya of Myanmar nationality and left them open to restrictions on freedom of movement that have affected their livelihoods.
The commission wants the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, invite the United Nations’ special envoy on freedom of religion or belief to visit the nation, and allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open a country office.
USCIRF’s statement echoed the U.S. State Department’s observation in its latest annual report on human rights practices around the world issued Wednesday that the Rohingya have experienced “severe legal, economic, and social discrimination.”
Taking away their vote
The former government disenfranchised the Rohingya during the Nov. 8 national elections, which the NLD won by a landslide, and banned almost all Rohingya and many other Muslim candidates from contesting in the elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire in the past for not speaking up on behalf of the Rohingya, whom the previous government referred to as “Bengalis” because it viewed them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.
Some 140,000 Rohingya were displaced after violence erupted between them and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012, which left more than 200 died and tens of thousands homeless. The Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the attacks, were later forced to live in squalid camps.
About 120,000 Rohingya remain in the camps, while thousands of others have fled persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country on rickety boats to other Southeast Asian countries in recent years.
Just before leaving office in late March, Thein Sein lifted a nearly four-year state of emergency in conflict-ridden Rakhine, but kept in place the policy restricting the movement of Rohingya interned in displacement camps.