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Who Are the Rohingya Muslims, and Why Should We Care?

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On Monday, Burmese President Thein Sein is due to visit the White House. The visit represents another milestone in recently burgeoning U.S.-Burma relations, and an opportunity to engage Thein Sein on the significance of respecting international human rights norms -- such as protecting its minority Muslim population's religious freedoms -- to continued Burmese democratic reform. The country's otherwise tainted record on religious freedom, including escalating communal violence, threatens to undermine its transition from one-party, autocratic military rule to more representative governance.

It adversely impacts our global security as well.

By way of background, more than 75 percent of the world's population resides in countries where official restrictions on religious freedom prevail. Despite laudable strides toward democratic reform, Myanmar (also referred to as Burma) is among those nations. In fact, it stands out as among the world's 25 most populous nations with the most government restrictions on, and social hostilities due to, religion. Notably, Burmese religious hatred, bias and violence are frequently directed toward its Rohingya Muslim population.

Who are the Rohingya Muslims?

The U.N. has long characterized the Rohingya Muslims, a religious and ethnic minority community numbering approximately 1 million in Myanmar, as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the nation's political and social spheres.

During the country's more than 60-year military rule since 1962, the Burmese army committed numerous human rights violations, for instance, including killing, raping and torturing its Rohingya Muslim population culminating at times in mass expulsions (and a chronic refugee crises in neighboring Bangladesh).

Such deplorable human rights and humanitarian conditions is further exasperated by the Rohingya and other Muslims' official "statelessness." Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to a nationality, prohibiting its arbitrary deprivation, the Burmese Citizenship Act, enacted back in 1982, codified the legal exclusion of the Rohingya denying them equal citizenship rights.

To be sure, this denial of Burmese citizenship has resulted in additional injustices and inequalities, including the group's lack of access to identity documents, education and employment. It has also rendered group members vulnerable to arbitrary detention, forced labor and discriminatory taxation. The Burmese government has further restricted their rights to marry, own property and move freely -- rights guaranteed to non-citizens as well as citizens under international law.

Unfortunately, Burmese President Thein Sein remains steadfastly opposed to repealing or amending the 1982 Citizenship Act. And the plight of the Rohingya Muslims will not improve until the law is stripped of its discriminatory provisions.

Contemporary Developments

Both government officials and fellow civilians continue to persecute the Rohingya Muslims even with the country's current democratic transition since a nominally civilian government was ushered in by popular elections in March 2011.

Human rights violations not only include the denial of citizenship rights mentioned above, but also restrictions on religious freedom such as mosque constructions as well as religiously motivated violence.

Indeed, sectarian violence often perpetrated by members of the majority Buddhist population has most recently erupted in June 2012, October 2012, March 2013, April 2013; it persists and is spreading to previously unaffected areas of the country.

The violence has reaped devastating effects.

The communal violence has left approximately 13,000 people homeless. More than 120,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in temporary shelters with limited access to food, medical care, sanitation facilities and other types of humanitarian necessities.

Responsible Burmese officials and security forces -- who have refused to protect the Rohingya Muslims at critical moments, participated in the persecution and obstructed access to humanitarian aid -- have not been subject to prosecution. Not surprisingly, a general climate of impunity prevails as Rohingya Muslims continue to endure brutal police repression, forced conscription to perform labor, arbitrary detention, beatings, killings and mistreatment.

Why Should We Care?

Last year, we re-designated Myanmar as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act because of related pervasive violations. During President Thein Sein's visit on Monday, he must understand that the status quo arguably threatens our global security.

Recent evidence from Georgetown University suggests that state restrictions on religious freedom may contribute to violent extremism. Such repression, as described above, may radicalize targeted religious communities and/or enhance the violent message of militants abroad. While I am an ardent supporter of nonviolence even in the face of legitimate political and other grievances, it is difficult to ignore the implications here.

Burmese officials who arbitrarily arrest, detain, beat, injure and kill Rohingya Muslims may enhance the appeal of those advocating a more violent response to government repression -- perhaps within the country but also well beyond. Indeed, media outlets around the world, including segments of the Muslim and Arab world, have already begun reporting on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

Conversely, Georgetown's research findings suggest that enhanced religious freedom may help "moderate, contain, counteract, or prevent the origin or spread" of violent religious extremism.

Through broader U.S. engagement, communication and dialogue -- such as Monday's momentous White House meeting -- President Thein Sein must come to understand the underlying significance of religious freedom to enhanced global security. He must understand that continued Burmese persecution of the minority faith community may contribute to violent extremism by inadvertently promoting its appeal.

Further, violent extremists elsewhere will manipulate those incidents of persecution to serve a more nefarious, violent narrative to recruit others to their abhorrent cause. The implications are far-reaching.

What We Should Do

Notably, the U.S. has expended more than $24 million in humanitarian aid to help address the suffering in Myanmar. But in the current climate of fiscal austerity, such levels of financial aid, even for humanitarian purposes, cannot be reasonably sustained.

Moreover, sanctions have proven grossly ineffective largely because of the willingness of other countries in the region to continue trading with Myanmar for their own economic and other strategic self-interest.

Potential solutions? What if we attempted to address the underlying causes of the communal strife and violence.

As an initial, necessary measure the Burmese should eliminate the discriminatory provisions of the 1982 Citizenship Act rendering the Rohingya Muslims "stateless." Statelessness deprives the Rohingya of equal protection under the law and facilitates additional injustices, thus contributing to increased likelihood of sectarian and other destabilizing conflict.

Burmese officials should adopt pluralism as an ideal model allowing for greater inclusivity of all of its religious and ethnic minorities. Formal inclusion of the Rohingya and other Muslims into the public and political spheres provides a nonviolent means to making a meaningful contribution to society thereby contributing to our global security.

Moreover, the sociological consequence of religious pluralism is a general recognition and acceptance of all faiths practiced by diverse groups. Arguably, this represents an ideal model for a diverse country like Myanmar.

It is significant to note that while there does not appear to be any current evidence of violent radicalization among the Rohingya or other Muslims in Myanmar, guarding against the phenomenon (there and abroad) is a critical consideration in light of the continuing Global War on Terror (GWOT).

By protecting religious freedom and conferring citizenship rights upon the Rohingya, the Burmese will continue its effective transition toward democracy. Unfortunately, the persistent waves of violence otherwise threaten to undermine its progress as well as global security. President Thein Sein should walk away from Monday's meeting at the White House with that realization.

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