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Could an ethnic ministry help Myanmar's Muslim minorities?

Two Rohingya children at a market in Thakkaypyin
Two Rohingya children at a market in Thakkaypyin Rémy Favre

Myanmar’s incoming government has announced plans to create a ministry for ethnic affairs, to address the issue of minorities in a country scarred by civil wars and sectarian tensions. But will this be a turning point for the country's Rohingya Muslims?


Myanmar is still burdened by the legacy of its previous military junta, which plunged the nation into poverty and isolation.

Many of the country’s different ethnic groups were repressed, and launched frequent armed struggles to achieve greater autonomy.

In November the human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to an outright majority, bringing hope of change after half a century of military rule.

With the creation of a special ministry to focus on the Myanmar's many ethnic minorities, the government now wants to bring peace and stability to the country.

“The constant ethnic demands for self-determination has been the issue which has justified the strong military rule within Myanmar”, Gareth Price, a senior researcher at London’s Chatham House, explains.

“If there is to be a transition towards civilian leadership, putting the ethnic issue at the top of the list is a priority to get the country to move forward”, he says.

To some observers, the announcement will sound promising - but just how inclusive will Myanmar's next administration be?

Aung San Suu Kyi has come under a lot of criticism for her silence on the fate of the Rohingya, a group of Muslim refugees who make up a third of the population in the state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.

Around 150,000 of them have been forced to live in camps for displaced people following a spat of violent clashes in 2012, and the United Nations have branded them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

In November a spokesman for the party, U Win Htein, said that helping them was not a priority, as he adopted the same rhetoric as the previous regime, by describing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

According to Lee Jones, a Myanmar specialist at the Queen Mary University of London, humanitarian progress could be made under the next government.

But as a large part of the country’s Buddhist majority holds little sympathy for the Rohingya, the NLD is unlikely to satisfy the group’s demands for citizenship.

“There is no constituency to grant the Rohingya citizenship or recognize them as one of the ethnic minorities indigenous to Myanmar”, he explains.

“The vast majority of the country’s citizens think of the Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants. There’s a strong xenophobic campaign waged against them and Muslims more broadly.”

In recent national and regional elections, not one of the NLD’s candidates were Muslim.

“They were completely purged from the list, and Aung San Suu Kyi steered well clear of this issue”, says Jones.

In a country which is 90% Buddhist and faces a surge of religious nationalism, expressing support for the Rohingya could mean electoral suicide.

But the 1991 Nobel Prize winner and her political party could also come under pressure from the outside, as the international community has expressed outrage at the persecutions and poverty the Muslim group continues to endure.

Olivier Guillard, from the International and Strategic Relations Institute in Paris, says the new government will not be able to dodge the issue for long.

“The new ministry of ethnic affairs will not be focusing on dealing with the very sensitive issue the Rohingyas”, he says, “but the question will eventually be taken into account, because the international community will be putting pressure on this government, whose leader has become a symbol of human rights.”

Even if the planned ministry for ethnic affairs does fail to address the issue after the new president Htin Kyaw takes office in two weeks time, the government could be taking a step in the right direction.

Gareth Price shares this less pessimistic view: "If other ethnic questions can be resolved, it brings more hope that down the line there could be a resolution for the Rohingyas."



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