A public official (Aung Ko) giving an interview in which he calls members of an entire religion less than citizens of his country and a celebrated and overwhelmingly elected champion of the people (Aung San Suu Kyi) remains silent as many of those people are persecuted. The circumstances sound like Nazi Germany but they describe today’s Burma.
Newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs, a former military general, Aung Ko, told Voice of America that while Buddhists are “full citizens” of Burma, Muslims and other minorities count only as “associate citizens”. This statement implies that Muslims are foreigners who do not deserve the full rights accorded to citizens of Burma, or even that they are sub-human.
Sadly, the new minister is following the old “solution“ as offered by the former President of Burma who officially asked the United Nations to resettle all Rohingya Muslims in a third country. Rohingya are indigenous people living in their ancestral land who have always been citizens, and have always voted and elected their representatives in Burma until the racist and Islamophobic policies of the military regime took away their citizenship.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries after their homes were burned down and thousands of them were killed. Almost 125,000 are living in what the New York Times describes as the 21st-Century Concentration Camps.
This statement of the “religious” minister comes up with a fictional category of “associate” citizenship & officially expands the state-sanctioned Islamophobia beyond the Rohingya population to other Muslims in Burma.
While Rohingya Muslims have been the main target of hate and bigotry, the rest of the Burmese Muslims have also suffered heavy discrimination and some attacks. Burmese Muslims believe they number about six million; almost half of them are Rohingya and the rest are Chinese-speaking Muslims on the border of China, Muslims of Indian heritage and even Muslims who are ethnically Burman, the majority race of Burma. Since in the recent Burmese census the government refused to follow the UN guidelines, there’s no authentic way of assessing the real numbers of ethnic groups.
The transformative process from military dictatorship to pluralistic democracy must continue unabated – with equal benefits to all people, all considered full citizens. Full citizenship for non-Rohingya Muslims is enshrined in Burma’s Constitution, which states that Islam is a recognized religion of Burma. It further states, “The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.” The Constitution makes no reference to these “associate citizens” and such rhetoric should be immediately abandoned.
Rather, the government of Burma should take steps to protect these suffering minorities and maintain their integration with the rest of Burmese society. Burmese Muslims must remain full citizens as the new government restores Rohingya’s citizenship as well.
This is the time for Burma to be open to all Burmese.