In the aftermath of deadly ethnic riots in Burma’s Rakhine state, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya remain displaced, unrecognised by the Burmese government. An Asia-Pacific Journalism special report.
Report – By Mohamed Hassan
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is at the centre of criticism from human rights groups for refusing to take a stance on the dispossession of the Rohingya minority in Burma.
The US-based Burma Task Force held rallies in 20 cities across the US and Canada to coincide with Suu Kyi’s recent tour. They called on the Nobel laureate to break her silence on the Rohingya.
Since the riots in the Rakhine state began in May this year, Burmese human rights groups have called on Suu Kyi to respond on the issue of Rohingya citizenship, which has been actively denied to them by the government since the 1982.
“We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”
Suu Kyi, who came to prominence as the voice of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, was held under house arrest for more than two decades from 1989 until 2010. She was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991.
While attending an Amnesty International forum last month, she was questioned about the situation, and said “communal tensions have existed for decades”.
She dismissed claims of persecution, saying that “condemnation does not necessarily bring about reconciliation”.
She said citizenship laws in Burma must be applied properly, but said they may need re-examining.
“We must go a step further, and examine whether our citizenship laws are in line with international standards.”
The Citizenship law passed in 1982 effectively stripped residency from the majority of Rohingya in Burma, branding them instead as Bengalese illegal immigrants.
In July, Amnesty International, along with other humanitarian groups, urged for the repeal of the law as a means of dealing with the on-going ethnic clashes.
Lifting of sanctions
Earlier this month, Suu Kyi concluded a two-week tour of the United States, in which she met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to request for sanctions on the Burmese government to be eased further, if not lifted completely.
Clinton raised concerns about the Rakhine state tensions, saying the Burmese government urgently needed to address them.
The previous week, the US Congress passed a motion to fast track a partial lift of sanctions on the Burmese government, but some rights groups see this as untimely.
“The lifting of sanctions on Burma de-legitimises ethnic nationalities’ demands for a cessation of hostilities, and prematurely rewards the Burmese regime while the military undertakes a clear escalation of violence,” said Aung Din from US Campaign for Burma.
Violence between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine erupted on May 28, after the killing of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. The attacks by both communities escalated quickly, resulting in a state of emergency declared by the Burmese government, and troops brought in to deal with the situation. The violence has since died down, but hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, considered as illegal immigrants under Burmese law, remain internally displaced.
A Human Rights Watch report released in August accused the Burmese government of failing to protect the Rohingya minority adequately, and in some cases inflaming the violence further through discriminant behaviour.
It reported cases of government forces rounding up large groups of Rohingya youth, and firing on protestors.
Matthew F. Smith, the author of the report, criticised the continued praise of reforms in Burma by Western leaders despite on-going human rights violations.
“Rather than generate undue optimism for the country’s investment prospects, world leaders need to let Burma’s rulers know they will not be rewarded for continuing these atrocities.”
Last month, at the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised concerns about the situation, to which Burmese president Thein Sein vowed to tackle, according to a UN spokesperson.
In July, Thein Sein suggested the UN High Commission of Refugees deal with the Rohingya, saying the only solution is moving them to any country that is willing to take them.
UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan said the organisation deals only with externally displaced refugees, and the Burmese government was responsible for all people within its borders.
“UNHCR has been advocating with the Myanmar government to grant nationality to those Rohingya who are entitled to it under the current nationality law. Others should receive a legal status that would grant them the rights needed to live a normal life in Myanmar.”
At least 75,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps on the fringes of Rakhine state, and thousands have fled to Bangladesh, only to be forced back by Bengal troops.
UN reports show up to 100,000 have been left stranded between camps along the border, unable to return to their villages.
About 200,000 Rohingya already live in camps on the Bangladeshi border, and in July Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the government could not bear the burden of more refugees, saying the responsibility lay solely with the Burmese government.
An order was also issued to three NGOs in the area not to assist Rohingya asylum seekers on the border.
“This is a cruel and inhumane policy that should immediately be reversed. The government should be welcoming aid organizations that provide life-saving aid, not shutting down their programs to assist refugees,” said Bill Frelick, HRW refugee programme director.
New Zealand has historically been vocal in its support of democratic reforms in Burma, but has so far remained silent on the riots.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully recently said the situation in the Rakhine state was concerning, and New Zealand and other regional bodies were monitoring the developments closely.
“While this violence has assumed an inter-religious dimension, the causes are several and New Zealand believes it is important that all parties respect fundamental human rights regarding the safety and security of all civilians.”
He said he wanted to see more progress on behalf of the Burmese government to “rejoin the regional mainstream”, because it had a “major role to play in South-East Asia’s future”.
Mohamed Hassan is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.