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Counting Down: Burma's Race to the Bottom for Human Rights

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As someone who has been long-interested in the struggle for the peoples of Burma to earn for themselves the full promise of human rights and real democracy, I waited with the world for the promise of reform and transition. Having been a founder of the US Campaign for Burma, a deep advocate for the cause of all ethnic nationalities there, and the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to lead her country from the darkness of authoritarian abuse to the brightness of an empowered future, I watched and held my breath in the so-called thaw in Burma. The elections that have been held, the removal of individuals from the banned list, the loosening of restrictions on journalism inside the country, and the apparent interest in the corridors of power to join the ranks of civilized nations made me hope that the grimmest times were ending and that the best times lay ahead.

South Africa had serious bumps in its transition to a fully enfranchised citizenship. Certainly the struggles of Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, and others might stand as both caution for the difficulties of the path but also for the potential of things to progress quickly to a better tomorrow. The policy of isolation didn't seem to produce any great victories to date, so at least trying engagement seemed like a good idea. With the rest of the world, we watched, we waited, and many of us might have even prayed.

Now it seems that the democratic and human rights future of Burma is on the cusp of being derailed once again. There are problems everywhere with the current track of the newly fabricated Naypyidaw regime, but they are depressingly telltale. The systematic rigging of the constitution to prevent the possibility of even a run for the presidency for Aung San Suu Kyi; the continued failure to contend with ethnically targeted rapes and attacks by the Tatmadaw, the military; the arbitrary appearance of corruption and a politically motivated judicial process, in land-grabs and more common prosecutions; and the continued impoverishment of the vast majority of citizens in a land overflowing with natural resource potential; these are all distressing trends in a country with such recently brightening promise.

However, nowhere does the current malaise of Burma come into focus as it does when one examines the case of the Rohingya. Numbering an estimated 0.8% of the population and largely inhabiting Rakhine (Arakan) State, the Rohingya are a minority that is historically present in Burma since before the days of British imperial rule and which practices Islam. They have suffered an incredible level of prejudice and mass violence that seems to either have been directly organized by the government itself or violence that has been strategically ignored by the media in Yangon and Naypyidaw. With status that has been increasingly marginal since being officially and by-fiat made a stateless people in 1982 by the former autocrat despot Ne Win, the Rohingya were prohibited from marrying without permission, from having children without permits, and from traveling outside of their own village and/or de facto refugee camps under a capricious and changing set of regulations. The past few years have seen organized hate campaigns operating under the guise of the Buddhist sangha, including monks. They have witnessed the torching of children and the blockade of aid/medicine shipments. They have seen the formal expulsion of Medicins Sans Frontieres in front-line relief work by the Naypyidaw government.

Now, it seems, after a massive international outcry including voices from the United Nations and that has seen involvement by Fortify Rights International, Human Rights Watch, Initiatives For Asia, and even Amnesty International, the government has entrenched its position by denying even the right to be counted in the first census in decades to take place and arguably the first semi-systematic one (though with this exclusion only systematic in racism) in over a half-century. It is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for Burma's so-called democrats to remain silent or to voice their assent for this hatred having flames fanned. It is unacceptable for any nation to maintain silence and it is unacceptable for any thinking or feeling human to do so.

We ask, in no ambivalent terms, to immediately contact your House and Senate representatives (see www.contactingthecongress.org) and ask people what they are doing to guarantee that human rights in Burma remain on the table for the Rohingya, for all Muslims and peoples of all faiths, for all nationalities, and for the full roll of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be applied within the borders of Burma and the United States.

Burma seemed to be on the verge of rising up. Now it seems to be in a race to the bottom for denying basic human rights and for maintaining a regime of silence on such a front. Please register your voice now. Write your representatives TODAY. An actual physical letter would be best, then a phone call, then an email. Ask them to stand with HRAC and the numerous others who have clamored for attention to be paid at the highest levels. Both parties are at fault for not trumpeting this more clearly here. Human rights are beyond partisan politics and continuing to ignore the plight of the Rohingya is unconscionable for any party or person anywhere.