The Norwegian government has been criticised for failing to pressure the Burmese government on the statelessness of the Rohingya minority during a landmark visit by President Thein Sein to the Scandinavian country this week.
Activists say they are disappointed that the government failed to press Thein Sein on citizenship rights for the Muslim minority in western Burma, who are considered one the world’s most persecuted peoples by the UN.
“Norway has performed a shocking u-turn from being one of the countries which did the most to support Burma’s democracy movement to one which now won’t even speak up for the most vulnerable and desperate people in Burma,” Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK told DVB.
It follows news that both the Norwegian prime minister and foreign minister have explicitly declared the issue of Rohingya citizenship to be an internal Burmese affair.
“We brought up this issue [the conflict in Arakan], of course. It is a serious situation. We ask that all people who live in Burma are treated with respect according to the human rights,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told Aftenposten.
“But there are disagreements regarding citizenship. In that regard we have encouraged dialogue, but we will not demand that Burma’s government give citizenship to the Rohingyas.”
The Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide insisted that a nation is “not obligated to give citizenship to everybody who is living there.”
“This is not something we are going to demand. Some critical voices talk as if all nations would have received people from neighbouring nations and made them citizens. We think this is a conflict that can be resolved through economic development and local reconciliation processes.”
More than 125,000 people have been displaced in western Burma after two bouts of vicious ethno-religious clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims last year. The Rohingya are considered illegal Bengali immigrants by the government and are denied basic civic rights, including access to health and education.
Oddny Gumaer from Partners Relief and Development told DVB that she was “shocked” by Eide’s comments, which seem to back the quasi-civilian regime’s claim that Rohingyas are not legitimate citizens, even though many have lived in the country for generations. The right to citizenship is also enshrined in international law.
“I cannot believe that a man with his influence would say what he did,” said Gumaer. “I am considering writing him a letter asking him if he really believes the government’s line about the Rohingya being illegal immigrants. It is wrong and ugly.”
Farmaner agreed that his comments “cross the line into defending the Burmese government’s violation of international law and its treaty obligations.”
“To imply the Rohingya are from neighbouring countries will only encourage extremists to commit more acts of violence against them. The Norwegian government’s approach to Burma now appears to be completely without principle.”
The Norwegian government has played a leading role in bringing the former pariah state back into the global economic fold, including funding a controversial peace initiative in Burma’s volatile border regions, which critics say could destabilise the ethnic reconciliation process.
In an exclusive interview with DVB this week, Thein Sein thanked Oslo for its continued economic support in lifting sanctions and waiving up to US$3 billion in debts owed to the global financial group – known as the Paris Club. Norway was the first western country to shed economic sanctions against the regime.
“Most significantly, when we talked with Paris Club members regarding the debt we owed them for decades – at first they were reluctant on the percentage they can provide and the percentage they will wave off,” Thein Sein told DVB.
“But then Norway, taking the lead, waved off 50 percent of the debts and also 50 percent more from the additional debt and other countries followed suit,” referring to another US$3 billion later dropped by the Japanese government.
Gumaer described the two governments’ public declarations to “strengthen economic ties” as “telling”. Burmese state media also welcomed future investment by Norway in the country’s “energy, information and technology sectors”.
“It seems to me that our leaders are mostly busy making sure that we get lucrative business deals in the country now that we (Norway) have given them so much money and aid,” Gumaer told DVB.
But a spokesperson for the Norwegian government insisted that there should be “no unclarity” on their message. “Long-term stability in Myanmar [Burma] will depend on continued political reforms, respect for human rights and a more equitable distribution of income and wealth.”