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Nov-15-2012 02:20printcomments

Editorial: Obama in Myanmar

They cannot live in ghettos like in the past.

Barack Obama
Courtesy: South China Morning Post

(RHIAD) - It is probably by chance that one of the first countries Barack Obama will visit after his reelection is in the midst of an insurgency against Muslims. The unrest in Myanmar between majority Buddhists and the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, has displaced at least 22,500 and has prompted the government to declare a state of emergency.

Obama’s visit, however, has very little to do with Muslims. It is rather the culmination of a dramatic turnaround in relations with Washington. The Myanmar government has released hundreds of political prisoners in the past year, part of a series of reforms that have followed five decades of repressive military rule.

Western governments have responded to the efforts by starting to ease sanctions put in place to pressure the military regime. As such, Obama will next week meet President Thein Sein and activist Aung San Suu Kyi in a groundbreaking first-ever visit to Myanmar by an American president.

The Obama administration regards the political changes in Myanmar as a marquee achievement in its foreign policy, and one that could dilute the influence of China in a country that has a strategic location between South and Southeast Asia, regions of growing economic importance.

However, Obama’s visit could be premature, not to mention ironic, for it rewards Thein Sein before his political reforms have truly taken root. The government — still dominant and implicated in rights abuses — has failed to prevent a vicious outbreak of communal violence that has left scores dead and has tested the efforts of Thein Sein’s administration to seek reconciliation with Myanmar’s different ethnic groups and move the country toward more democratic governance.

There has been tension between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims since May when violence began in Rakhine state after three Muslim men were arrested on suspicion of raping and killing a Buddhist woman.

The Rohingya people are a stateless Muslim minority who have been persecuted by the Myanmar military during its decades of authoritarian rule. Myanmar doesn’t recognize them as citizens.

Racial and religious prejudice against Muslims is rife in Myanmar. The Muslims in Rakhine have never been granted citizenship by successive Myanmar governments. And a law promulgated in 1992 excluded the Rohingya from the list of officially recognized minorities.

The time-honored rivalry and animosity between the Buddhists and the Muslims who inhabit the Arakanese coastal region of Myanmar must be brought to a halt. The Muslims of Myanmar must be protected from the bigotry of their Buddhist brethren. Long viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists and agents provocateurs, the Rohingya must be granted full citizenship rights.

They cannot live in ghettoes like in the past.

Thein Sein condemned the massacre of the Muslims but did little else to stop the killing save discuss the situation with the UN secretary-general in New York in September, during which he pledged to “address the root causes of the tensions,” and announced that an internal commission, including representatives from different political parties and religious organizations, had been formed to investigate the sectarian violence.



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