UK parliamentarians held a discussion in London’s Westminster Hall on Thursday about the ongoing persecution faced by the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities in Burma and debated what the UK government must do to stem human rights violations in that country.
Proposed by David Ward, an MP representing Bradford East – a constituency in Yorkshire, northern England – the discussion centered on human rights violations committed against the Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan [Rakhine] State. While Yorkshire remains very far away from that northern state of Burma, Ward said in the opening of the discussion that this was a matter close to his heart as there are Rohingya refugees living in Bradford who escaped from Burma and Bangladesh.
“There is now an important group of people, whom I consider to be Bradfordians and constituents, who regularly raise with me appalling stories of what is happening,” Ward said.
Quoting from the report of Tomás Ojea Quintana, the former UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Ward said that Quintana “found the practice of separating or segregating communities continues to have a severe impact on the Muslim populations in Rakhine”, including the reported incidents of extrajudicial killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence; the lack of due process, fair trial and rights for Rohingyas; and the “deprivation of liberty”.
“These are not isolated incidents; they are happening in a large scale and are directed, in many cases, against the Rohingya population,” Ward said. “They are so serious that they should be referred to the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.”
Besides Ward, four other parliamentarians – David Simpson, Valerie Vaz, Jim Shannon and Kerry McCarthy — brought up other instances of human rights abuses committed not just against the Rohingyas, but also against ethnic minorities, a large percentage of whom are Christians.
Also troubling them was legislation pushed through by the Burmese government such as the religious conversion bill, which will prevent interfaith marriage and religious conversion, and is a “serious breach of international human rights”, according to parliamentarian McCarthy; and a nationwide census that does not allow for Rohingyas to self-identify as such, instead putting themselves down as “Bengalis”.
Speaking to Hugh Robertson, a minister from the UK Foreign Office, the parliamentarians questioned how the UK government could do more to push the Burmese government and military – which Ward said are complicit in the atrocities by “turning a blind eye” – to stop the abuses. They also questioned the wisdom in the British Army offering training to the Burmese Army, which parliamentarian Shannon accuses of using “those tactics against their own people”; and they questioned UK funding in aid and other programmes, such as the census which excluded Rohingyas, and how the UK government could use this as leverage to push for more reforms.
“The reforms to date are simply a smokescreen and the [Burmese] president is carrying out reforms of a limited nature with a view to try and get the international community to remove the sanctions,” Ward said.
“We have these continuous good news stories coming out about the progress being made. But on the other side, there is horrendous atrocities and abysmal behavior towards large sections of the ethnic minorities and communities,” he continued. “It’s almost like two parallel worlds that live alongside each other.
While Robertson did not downplay the parliamentarians concerns, he reiterated the need to strike a balance with a country that is “undertaking an extraordinarily complex transition”.
“There is a classic Foreign Office dilemma here,” Robertson said. “I would not for a moment pretend that everything is rosy in this garden and I would not want people to think that we have a rose-tinted view of the matter. We really do not.”
He responded that the UK government and Foreign Office has consistently raised these issues with the Burmese government, and that they are “deeply disappointed that the Burmese government had simply reneged on their longstanding assurances that all individuals would have the right to self-identify their ethnic origin.”
As for the allegations leveled against the Burmese government and the military, Robertson said that the military, “for better or worse, is a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of political reform”.
“Again, it returns to the judgment of whether to stand back and criticise the reform if it does not succeed or to engage with it and try to affect the situation for the better,” he continued. “We have tried to do the latter and will continue to use our leverage over the Burmese military to get them to tackle issues, such as child soldiers and to bring sexual violence to an end once and for all.”
Mark Farmaner, director of human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK, said that Robertson is providing false equivalency when speaking about disengaging with the Burmese government. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing approach, he said in an email to DVB. “No one is proposing disengagement; engagement is essential. But it must be the right kind of engagement.
“When the British government, the USA and others had a policy centred on human rights [and] applying pressure of various kinds, we saw the reform process begin, many political prisoners released, and an increase in civil liberties,” Farmaner said.
“Once the pressure was lifted, aid and other assistance started going to the government, friendly relations were established and policy was centered on trade – we saw the reform process stall: the number of political prisoners start to go back up, arrests of journalists start again, treatment of the Rohingya becomes even worse and [there is] renewed intimidation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.”
Since 2012, more than 130,000 Rohingyas have fled from their homes in Arakan State due to communal violence, while the UN has reported that more than 86,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, have left the state by boat to escape to neighbouring countries.