Soe Myint, the Editor-in-Chief of Mizzima Media
Last week two seemingly unrelated events attracted the attention of this writer. The first was the announcement in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar that the temporary ID documents known as white cards will expire at the end of March and those who hold them will lose their voting rights.
As a result about 1.5 million residents, most of whom are Muslims, will become illegal overnight. They will become subject to a national verification process that has been widely criticised by the international community because it requires Rohingya Muslims to identify themselves as Bengalis. If the verification process is to be based on a proposal in the draft Rakhine Action Plan released last year that was used in a pilot program at Myebon in Rakhine State, only “Bengali” will be acceptable to the government.
In a further sign that the government means business, Rakhine State Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn warned non-government organisations not to become involved in the white cards issue.
His statement and the unrestrained and unsanctioned verbal attack on UN human rights envoy Yanghee Lee by the Venerable U Wirathu reveal a broader electoral strategy.
Five years ago, the Rohingya were courted by the Union Solidarity and Development Party and issued with white cards ahead of the 2010 general election. This time around the government seems bent on pleasing the nationalist movement. The Rohingya are deeply unpopular with the Bamar electorate and are being excised from the political theatre that will unfold later this year.
The second event that struck this writer was the announcement that Luxembourg academic Dr Jacques Leider, who has specialised in research on ancient Rakhine kingdoms, has been hired as an advisor by the UN resident coordinator, Ms Renata Lok-Dessallien. There’s a widely held perception that Dr Leider is biased against those who identify as Rohingya. In interviews, in The Irrawaddy for example, and in his writings he claims the Rohingya ethnicity does not exist as such, a statement that made him the darling of Rakhine nationalists overnight.
A group of nationalist monks, A Myo Thar Yay, Doe A Yay (the Nationalist Cause is our Cause), last week welcomed Dr Leider’s appointment on Facebook and asked citizens to send a message to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to stop using the R-word.
Ms Lok-Dessallien has arranged for Dr Leider to brief diplomats on the historical context of the conflict in Rakhine, including at the US embassy earlier this month. Why Dr Leider, who is not a specialist in human rights, development or humanitarian issues, should address diplomats on a current day conflict in which these three topics are key is unclear.
The UN resident coordinator may hire whoever she wants. But Dr Leider’s perceived bias against the Rohingya makes this an unwise appointment. It strengthens the image of the UN in Myanmar as being pro-government, a notion that took hold when it became the only international organisation in the country that failed to criticise the Rakhine State Action Plan. The UN in Myanmar also declined to sign a European Union statement that was critical of the four so-called protection of religion draft laws that involve breaches of international treaties.
Furthermore, the UN’s stand will alienate the Rohingya community. Rohingya politicians have already threatened to boycott the UN over Dr Leider’s appointment.
And what for? In a sense the historical roots of the term “Rohingya” are irrelevant and the discussion moot, because any ethnic group has the basic right to self identify. It is one of the human rights the UN is supposed to uphold. Trying to influence the diplomatic community to spurn the Rohingya word and accept the Bengali label ahead of a massive and frankly, dubious, national verification process is the complete antitheses of what the UN stands for.
If we want a genuinely united Myanmar, we must respect the fundamental rights of all people in the country. We have to stand up for marginalised and minority communities. Politics is one thing, but we need to build Myanmar based on principles that will unite us all. The same applies to the international community. No double standards can be practised on principles and guidelines that are cemented in various international charters, convenants and treaties.