In 2011, Myanmar held its first round of decades after fifty years of military rule. Thein Sein, a former military official, took the election claiming 90% of the popular vote. Needless to say, the election was shrouded in controversy.
Despite the controversy, Sein has since been regarded as an innovator and reformer, easing restrictions on freedoms of media, travel, assembly, and speech. As the international community applauded and encouraged the reformation of the government in Myanmar, life for the Rohingya’s in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state found their livelihoods becoming more constricted as the rest of Myanmar began to enjoy marginal freedoms.
The Rohingya are a part of a 4% Muslim minority in majority Buddhist Myanmar. 80% of Myanmar’s million or so Rohingyas live in northern Rakhine, near the state capital of Sittwe and the surrounding villages. The Rohingyas share the western state with the Rakhine Buddhists who have strong lineage in the region and share the official government stance that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, with whom the state shares a border. The government refers to the Rohingya ‘Bengalis’ and even calling them Rohingya in Myanmar is taboo. The Rohingyas status as illegal immigrants was popularized after Ne Win’s military junta enacted the 1982 Citizenship Law which outlined 135 recognized ethnic groups that are native to Myanmar pre-1823. This list did not include the Rohingya. The 1823 cut-off was a result of the British colonial government in India encouraging migration from what is now Bangladesh into Myanmar. Even though Rohingya did migrate from Bangladesh at that time, reports from the British East India Company place Rohingya in Arakan (now Rakhine) at least 25 years before 1823. The denial of citizenship to the Rohingya in 1982 was part of a deliberate effort by Ne Win to cleanse the country of religious minorities, Muslims being the main target.
Since the rise of the military government the Rohingya have systematically been stripped of rights. At the end of a ten day fact-finding mission carried out last month, Yanghee Lee, Myanmar’s UN Envoy, described the situation as ‘deplorable’ and while she congratulated the country in the steps it has made since military rule, she feared “…signs of possible backtracking, which if unchecked could undermine Myanmar's efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights”.