On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
No one should be denied food or medicine on account of their ethnicity or religion, but that is what is increasingly happening to some people in Burma. A humanitarian crisis is emerging because in some parts of the country, the authorities are blocking aid access. In other areas, international agencies are cutting aid. Blocks and cuts combined are resulting in displaced people who have fled conflict going hungry at night. That is why we have launched our new campaign: “Real Change”.
When we talk about refugees today, we think of Syria and Iraq. But Burma remains a country where significant numbers of people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands escape to other countries, but others are internally displaced. Over 120,000 in Kachin and northern Shan states, and over 130,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
Military powers remain problematic in Burma
The news headlines from Burma over the past year have mostly been positive. A remarkable peaceful transition from military rule to a civilian, democrat-led government, with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm, should be a cause for celebration. Her party, the National League for Democracy, overwhelmingly won the country’s first credible elections in a quarter of a century last November, and formed the government in April. To see her with Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street, with President Obama in the White House, or at the United Nations, after over 15 years under house arrest and the best part of three decades of struggle, is extraordinary.
Yet behind the headlines, the reality is more complex. The military may no longer be in direct charge, but their power remains. Under the military-drafted constitution, a quarter of the seats in Parliament are reserved for them and they control three key ministries in government: home affairs, border affairs and defence. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee.
So unless the military agrees, the prospects for tackling the root causes of Burma’s conflicts remain slim. In August, Suu Kyi organised a major peace conference with representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities, which was a welcome start. But to secure genuine peace, a political solution needs to be found to address the ethnic nationalities’ desire for autonomy and equal rights within a federal system. And the fact that as the talks were going on, the Burma Army launched new attacks in Kachin and Shan States is hardly an encouraging sign. Even in Karen State, where a ceasefire was agreed in 2012, reports of new violence have emerged recently.
Dimensions of Religious Intolerance
Religious intolerance in Burma has several dimensions. In its most acute form, there is the appalling crisis facing the Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim people in Rakhine State. Described as one of the most persecuted people in the world, enduring what some experts say may amount to crimes against humanity or even potential genocide, the Rohingyas are marginalised, dehumanised and stateless. Their mosques have been destroyed or closed, their movement restricted, their access to education denied and their citizenship taken from them. In 2012, two horrific explosions of violence against them forced thousands out of their homes and into displacement camps that seem more like concentration camps.
After years of reluctance to speak about the issue, Suu Kyi finally formed an international commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, to investigate the causes of the conflict and seek solutions – something CSW had been calling for. Rakhine nationalists and military-backed groups responded with outrage.
Trying to find lasting solutions to end conflict and build peace in Burma is of course vital and these two steps taken by Suu Kyi’s government – the peace conference and the Kofi Annan commission – have to be welcomed. But there is the more immediate, more urgent challenge of allowing humanitarian aid to reach those desperately in need.
“For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability.”
Aid is a Lifeline to Internally Displaced Communities
Last week, the Burma Army prevented trucks containing a month’s supply of rice from the World Food Programme (WFP) from reaching a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin state, and the previous month the military blocked a vehicle carrying medical supplies for four camps, provided by the United Nations.
In a separate but equally troubling development, reports have emerged that over 40 camps in Rakhine state have experienced cuts in WFP aid or been informed of cuts to come. These are apparently part of a plan to phase-out relief assistance in parts of Rakhine State.
In July, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee said, after meeting internally displaced peoples, that she had heard of their “daily struggles to survive”. She expressed concern about the “extensive difficulties in accessing and delivering aid”, even though such assistance “provides a lifeline to communities”. In Rakhine state, she noted, access can only be approved “through a cumbersome procedure”, and in Kachin state “humanitarian access is shrinking”. The conditions of the internally displaced peoples’ camps she witnessed “remain poor”.
If this continues, more people will die. For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability. It is in Burma’s own interests to ensure that this does not happen. Suu Kyi’s government needs to stop the block on aid, and the international community must end the cuts, and we must all do what we can to ensure that no one starves to death because of their race or religion. Join us in this campaign today, and help bring real change for Burma.
On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations.
My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.
But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.
“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”
Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.