The NLD and the Rohingya

A National League for Democracy government is unlikely to be in any hurry to address one of the human rights issues of greatest concern to the international community.


The new parliament has convened and an overwhelming National League for Democracy majority means it can draft or pass any bill except those seeking to amend the constitution. With the NLD poised to assume legislative and executive power after the new government takes office on April 1, questions are emerging about how it will address the sensitive issue involving Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and the Muslim community generally.

The international community is especially concerned to know how the NLD and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will address the issue of the Rohingya.

The NLD government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will implement reforms cautiously and patiently.

The first priority of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in this transition period is to ensure the smooth running of the new parliament and government. Her second priority might be to become president, but we don’t know that yet. It is highly likely that the NLD will wait until the parliament is functioning smoothly and it has a firm hold on government power before it begins to address issues such as minority rights. It has no intention of tackling such sensitive issues hastily.

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An early challenge in handling a human rights issue with implications for the Rohingya occurred during the final days of the outgoing parliament. President U Thein Sein had proposed that the Ministry of Immigration and Population be merged into the Ministry of Home Affairs. A parliamentary committee decided not to refer the proposal to the hluttaw for a vote and consideration of the issue has been deferred.

The government refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” and blocks most of them from obtaining citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law because it believes they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many say they have lived in Rakhine State for generations.

Because they lack the necessary documents, the Rohingya cannot move freely in Rakhine or travel to other states and regions or abroad, or receive a tertiary education.

If an NLD government could carry out checks on the Rohingya to determine if they qualify for citizenship under the 1982 law it could lead to an improvement in their human rights.

Had the Ministry of Immigration and Population been merged into the Home Affairs Ministry it would not have been possible for an NLD government to take action on this problem.

Not surprisingly, the chairman of the Rakhine National Party, Dr Aye Maung, supported the merger, saying it would be better for his state if immigration was under Home Affairs, one of three ministries controlled by the Tatmadaw.

“Immigration is an important institution for national security and it is better to put it under the supervision of the Home [Affairs] Ministry. It makes national citizens more secure,” said Dr Aye Maung.

Another challenge for the NLD concerns extreme Buddhist nationalists. The outspoken extremist monk, the Venerable U Wirathu, recently posted on his Facebook page a grim six-minute video that recreated the rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men in Rakhine in 2012. The incident triggered the sectarian violence that claimed scores of lives and has left about 140,000 Rohingya confined to camps in Rakhine.

The video, posted on January 29, was reported to have been viewed more than 100,000 times before it was removed on February 1 for violating Facebook’s community standards.

U Wirathu said he posted the video because he wanted to show the NLD that it was important to protect the “race and religion of the country”.

U Wirathu is a prominent member of Ma Ba Tha, the monk-led organisation that drafted the package of so-called “protection of race and religion laws” approved by parliament and enacted last year.

In an ominous development, U Wirathu and Ma Ba Tha have warned the NLD not to annul or amend any of the four laws.

We cannot hope that an NLD parliament and government will solve the human rights abuses of the Rohingya, discrimination towards all Muslims and other rights issues.

The new parliament and government will initially be focused on too many other challenges to consider these issues.

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