The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Asia’s minority rights crisis is getting worse

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On Monday, the Indian government announced a decision that may render millions of people statelessWhen authorities published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens for the state of Assam, situated in the country's northeast, they left an estimated 4 million people off the list, meaning that their proof of citizenship was rejected by the government as it updated the state's rolls. Assam is on the front line of India's battle over illegal immigration, with politicians grandstanding over the threat of “infiltrators” from neighboring Bangladesh. Over the decades, the state has experienced bouts of bloody interethnic strife.

Residents left off the list still have time to appeal the government's decision, and my colleague Annie Gowen noted that there are no mass-deportation plans in place. “But the draft does raise the question of where migrants will go after the numbers are finalized; Bangladesh’s government does not acknowledge them as citizens,” she wrote.

“I’m worried about my future,” Saleha Begum, 40, who was born in Assam but was not on the list, told The Washington Post. “My parents were born here. We have all the documents. Still, my family’s names are not on the list. I’m scared.”

In an echo of Myanmar's treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims, top officials in India's Hindu nationalist government cast a whole swath of Muslims in Assam as an alien menace.  Now, analysts fear looming chaos as India's prime minister courts votes ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

“Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the state, has insisted in the past that illegal Muslim immigrants will be deported. But neighboring Bangladesh will definitely not accede to such a request,” explained the BBC's Soutik Biswas. “Chances are India will end up creating the newest cohort of stateless people, raising the specter of a homegrown crisis that will echo the Rohingya people who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.”

Readers of Today's WorldView are all too familiar with the debates over identity and immigration roiling the West. President Trump and like-minded populist leaders in Europe represent a powerful illiberal current in world politics, steeped in nationalist grievances.

But in Asia, home to the majority of the world's population, these politics are all the more volatile and risk even larger explosions of violence. From India to the Philippines, a host of Asian countries that emerged from the wars and empires of the last century boast ostensibly democratic, multiethnic societies. But that pluralism is being sternly challenged by a deepening majoritarianism.

In Myanmar, the Rohingya have long been the scapegoats of the powers that be. The country's new civilian leadership has remained in lockstep with its overweening generals, pandering to the Buddhist nationalism of its majority while systematically depriving the Rohingya of the same rights as their compatriots.

Following last year's campaign of apparent ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military and affiliated vigilante groups, more than 700,000 Rohingya remain in squalid refugee camps in eastern Bangladesh. The arrival of summer monsoons over the past two months has created “a sanitation nightmare,” my colleague Vidhi Doshi reported, and helped spread diseases such as diphtheria. Meanwhile, Myanmar's government has stymied a U.N.-supervised process of repatriation by refusing to grant citizenship to many Rohingya refugees seeking the right to return.

Beyond the growing pool of stateless people in Asia — potentially numbering in the millions — there's the even more widespread issue of trampling minority rights. In Indonesia last week, the country's Constitutional Court rejected a petition from members of the oft-persecuted Ahmadiyah sect of Islam to revoke a long-standing blasphemy law (similar laws are on the books in other Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan). The law has been invoked to jail a prominent ethnic Chinese Christian politician on charges critics say are politically motivated.

“The government’s refusal to seek the law’s revocation raises troubling questions about its commitment to human rights for all Indonesians,” noted Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Indonesia cannot claim to be a tolerant Muslim country while continuing religious discrimination and rights violations enabled by its blasphemy law.”

A recent column in the Economist noted that “wealth inequalities and ethnic divisions make South-East Asia fertile ground for his style of majoritarian populism,” pointing to the growing clout of would-be demagogues in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

And then there's China, the regional hegemon. Though there are more than 50 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, it's hardly a poster child for tolerance. In the far western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, Beijing has installed a crushing apparatus of state control and surveillance to suppress any sign of separatism. It imposes harsh restrictions on ordinary Uighurs' ability to practice their faith and has encouraged Han Chinese migration to the region to dilute its demographic makeup.

Uighurs in exile allege that tens of thousands of their compatriots have been consigned to “reeducation camps,” which both “disappear” potential dissidents and seek to indoctrinate them according to Communist Party ideology. Chinese authorities justify their policies of repression by pointing to the threat of Islamist terrorism.

But, as BuzzFeed's Megha Rajagopalan reported in an expose earlier this month, those security concerns have provided the platform for a pervasive system of control, which now extends across borders.

“Rights groups say the government’s crackdown amounts to the collective punishment of millions of people over the actions of a handful,” Rajagopalan wrote after speaking to numerous Uighurs living overseas. “Every person interviewed for this article said state security operatives told them their families could be sent to, or would remain in, internment camps for 'reeducation' if they did not comply with their demands. It was a campaign, they said, that aimed not only to gather details about Uighurs’ activities abroad, but also to sow discord within exile communities in the West and intimidate people in hopes of preventing them from speaking out against the Chinese state.”

This may reflect the extreme measures that only of one of the world's most powerful authoritarian states can implement. But in an age of combustive nationalism, China's stance is far from the exception.

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