The past year has seen impressive progress in Burma – the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners, preliminary ceasefires with many ethnic minorities in Burma and the first elections in 20 years which saw pro-democracy candidates elected to parliament. Alongside this internal progress, international progress is being made with sanctions being suspended and political relationships starting to form, not least with an invitation from Prime Minister David Cameron to Burma’s President Thein Sein to visit the UK later this year.
Burma’s President Thein Sein has been working hard to convince the world his government is changing. Yet this story of progress and reform hides a far more complex and troubling truth. Burma is taking some initial, fragile steps towards democratisation, but there is still a very, very long way to go. Several hundred political prisoners remain in jail, a brutal war continues many ethnic minorities including the predominantly Christian Kachin people in northern Burma, and there are still systematic human rights abuses – civilians in Kachin talk of forced labour, torture and extra judicial killings and at least 75,000 people have been forcibly displaced.
And there is the tragedy that is the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas. In June, a devastating cycle of violence spiralled out of control in Arakan State in western Burma. Sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman allegedly by Muslim Rohingyas, decades of racial and religious hatred erupted into several weeks of sectarian violence in which hundreds were killed, dozens of villages torched and at least 90,000 people displaced. Both communities committed violence, but the Rohingyas were the primary victims.
The effects were seen far wider than Arakan State. Throughout Burma, and among Burmese exiled communities abroad, including in the UK, blatant and shocking anti-Muslim racism came to the fore with threats against Rohingyas as well as those who campaign for them and crude comments on social media depicting the Rohingyas as “Bengalis” and “terrorists”.
Back in Burma, as the violence subsided, the security forces began a violent crackdown going house to house arresting Rohingyas who have now seemingly disappeared without charge and without trial. Those who could flee had nowhere to run except the jungle. Those who could not flee faced jail or death. This is a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in the making.
Underlying this entire issue is the question of citizenship. The Rohingyas have lived in Burma for generations, but under the 1982 Citizenship Law they are not recognised as citizens. The Burmese government, and many in Burmese society, describe them as “illegal immigrants”. For years, they have faced severe restrictions on marriage, movement, education and religion in Burma, because they are deemed “foreigners”. They are among the most persecuted, marginalised people in the world.
Bangladesh, however, will not take them either. Although an estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees have lived in dire conditions along the Bangladesh-Burma border for years, Bangladesh refuses to give sanctuary to any more. Those fleeing the current crisis have been turned back from the border, sent to face an uncertain fate. Those who have escaped from Burma on boats have been turned away from Bangladesh’s shores, often to die in stormy seas or be shot at by Burmese troops.
In early July, President Thein Sein escalated the crisis even further, by reportedly telling the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that his government will not recognise them. On the same day Britain opened a trade office in Naypyidaw and the US lifted sanctions, Thein Sein wanted to hand the entire ethnic group to the UNHCR to look after until they could be resettled in a third country. He described the 800,000 Rohingyas in Burma as “a threat to national security”.
There is an urgent need for international pressure on President Thein Sein, to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law and introduce a new law that is based on international norms and human rights. No one born in Burma should be denied citizenship. No ethnic group should be written off as “a threat to national security”. Such racial and religious intolerance is unacceptable.
The British government must make this issue a priority. If Burma is to become a truly free nation, with all the responsibilities and benefits that come with that, it must respect human rights for all its people. Britain must push for open access for humanitarian aid and human rights monitors to all areas of Burma, the release of all political prisoners and for an immediate stop to the violence and persecution - including rewriting the Citizenship Law. Without this, the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma cannot move forward.