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Azeem Ibrahim: Myanmar's ethnic minorities still need the world's protection

The U.S. in late May eased but did not remove sanctions against Myanmar -- sending a signal that summed up the view among many Western governments of the situation in the once closed and repressive country. Myanmar has made progress toward democratizing in recent years, including electing its first civilian government since 1962 in November 2015, when the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, stormed to power by winning absolute majorities in both chambers of Myanmar's parliament.

But on some other measures the country has been slipping backward. On humanitarian issues, the move toward democracy has been accompanied not by an opening of society and increased rights and protections for all the citizens of the country, but quite the contrary. As the majority of the population is finding its political voice after decades of repression, radical nationalists from the Buddhist majority are using that voice to abuse the country's minorities -- particularly the Muslim Rohingya, who account for an estimated 1 million to 1.3 million people out of the total population of 53 million or more.

What are we in the West to make of this conundrum? How can we approach a country where an increase in democracy does not correlate with an increase in the other social values we hold dear, but where humanitarian concerns and democracy are pulling in different directions? And how can we approach sanctions policy in these circumstances?

Myanmar is perhaps one of the toughest nuts to crack in international diplomacy. Since it gained independence from Britain in 1948, it has largely withdrawn from the international community. From 1962 to 2011 it was governed by a reclusive, xenophobic military establishment -- so much so that its closest allies during this time were China and North Korea.

But in the last decade, things have changed dramatically. Growing unrest in the country in 2007, topped off by the government's disastrous response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 140,000 people in 2008, has seriously undermined the position of the once all-powerful military establishment. From this came the country's bold step toward the democratic civilian administration it has today.

This movement toward democracy has been matched by increasing rapprochement with the international community. Long-standing sanctions have been eased, new trade and investment deals have been struck, and U.S. President Barack Obama visited the country in 2012 and 2014, while British Prime Minister David Cameron called for lifting sanctions against Myanmar as early as 2012.

Clearly, we want to encourage Myanmar to continue to make progress on this metric. We want it to become a full member of the international community, and we want its citizens to become full citizens of the world. And we want to trade with them and help the country develop economically, as well as politically.

But as things stand, it is difficult to figure out how to reward the progress they have made, without also seeming to tolerate the human rights abuses in the country. In this regard, even Suu Kyi is making things much more difficult for us than they should be.

STATELESS ROHINGYA The Rohingya, the people at the center of this issue, are a Muslim minority in a country that is Buddhist by law and constitution, and have been denied citizenship as a group since 1982, rendering them one of the world's largest stateless populations. They have suffered repeated attempts at what some claim is a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing, and United Nations agencies and international nongovernmental organizations have described them as "the most oppressed people on Earth."

Some estimate there are roughly 2 million Rohingya from Myanmar, and that nearly half have been driven from the country in recent decades. Many are languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, or have been forced into slavery in Thailand and elsewhere.

Since 2012, repeated waves of violence, instigated by Buddhist extremists in their native state of Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan), and aided and abetted by elements in the police, military and border agencies, have corralled as many as 120,000 to 140,000 Rohingya into makeshift camps for internally displaced people, where they are routinely denied medical care, education and adequate food, to say nothing of work or other economic opportunities.

For her part, Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi has been disappointingly slow to address this issue. She may have decided that political expediency trumps human decency, showing herself open to doing deals with extremist Buddhist monks linked to abuses and the radical Rakhine nationalists who have been instigating and carrying out the violence.

Along with those extremists who wear ethnic cleansing as a badge of patriotic honor, she has refused to even acknowledge the existence of the group. Just the other week she reprimanded the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar for using the word "Rohingya" in expressing his condolences to the families of the victims of a boat accident in which some 30 Rohingya died, along with members of other minority groups. They had been trying to get from their camp to the nearby town to visit the hospital and the market -- amenities they are denied in the camp.

Suu Kyi does, however, seem to understand the frustration of U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations with the situation of the Rohingya. She will be heading a new, 27-member committee just set up for the "implementation of peace, stability and development in Rakhine state." But there are reasons to be skeptical about how much this committee will achieve -- the Rohingya will not be represented on it, while officials from Rakhine state who were in office at the height of the violence will be part of the committee.

This will be a serious test for the new government's international reputation. But until there is tangible progress, can the West really reduce sanctions in good conscience? Perhaps not, but we must not take it off the agenda. We should not, of course, punish Myanmar's population for the abuses of an extremist minority. If we want to welcome the people of Myanmar into the 21st century, we cannot do so without dangling a carrot in front of them.

But it is equally obvious that we still need to wave the stick. We must attach conditions to sanctions relief on the metric of progress toward democratization, but we should put at least as much emphasis on the way Myanmar treats the Rohingya and other oppressed minorities.

Any further exemptions and licenses to trade from the U.S. and other allies should be strictly regulated to make sure no individual, company or community that contributes to oppression is rewarded. Individuals, organizations and institutions that push for, enable or acquiesce to ethnic cleansing should be targeted and should see tightening sanctions. And the legal framework for sanctions we currently have in place should remain in force in perpetuity until such time as all those born in Myanmar are granted equal citizenship and full protections of all their rights, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow at Mansfield College at the University of Oxford and author of "The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar's Hidden Genocide."

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