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Open letter to International Crisis Group

Dear International Crisis Group President Louise Arbour,

I am writing to bring your attention to the rather disturbing recent developments in Burma.

Within 24 hours of your organisation’s “In Pursuit of Peace” dinner in New York, Burma’s Minister of Immigration and former Chief of Police Khin Yi, who was part of the delegation accepting the award on behalf of President Thein Sein, reportedly reiterated the Thein Sein Administration’s neo-fascist stance on the highly controversial 1982 Citizenship Act.

In response to a question posed by Khaing Aung Gyaw, a Rakhine nationalist, during his public meeting with Burmese exiles in New York City this week, Khin Yi emphatically stated that Burma’s citizenship law is “solely based on blood” and no foreigners or “foreign blood” officially resided in Burma before the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824.

Khin Yi was emphatic when he said Thein Sein’s government will never alter “a single word, sentence or paragraph of this blood-based citizenship law” as it was written by lawmakers who allegedly had Burma’s “national security” and “national interest” in mind. The notions of ‘racial purity’ and ‘blood’ as a basis for citizenship belong to 1930s Nazi Germany and we know where these ideas led to – a series of pogroms.

Against this historical backdrop, the ICG’s peace award recipient, President Thein Sein, should be held accountable for the views and words articulated by one of the key members of his cabinet.Indeed, both the timing of Khin Yi’s public remarks and the defence of the blood-based foundation of Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Act raise serious issues as to where the ICG stands concerning the policies of the Burmese leadership.

If the ICG’s award is about honouring President Thein Sein’s “visionary leadership to effect profound social, economic and political changes” that will “bring us closer to a world free of conflict” then the organisation’s empirical understanding of both Thein Sein’s vision and the ugly realities experienced by the Burmese people, including the Rohingya, can only be characterised as delusional. This is to say, the ICG’s understanding of the country as reflected in its Burma analyses and the laudatory citation of Thein Sein’s vision seem to be devoid of verifiable and factual truths.

On the question of the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, whose ethnic identity was officially recognised by the first independent Burmese government under PM U Nu in the 1950s, the ICG’s man of peace was reportedly in favour of both establishing an apartheid state in Western Burma and expelling the entire lot en masse. He reportedly offered these two policy options to the visiting head of the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, last year.

On the same day your organisation was hosting a black-tie dinner in honour of Burma’s president, New York-based Human Rights Watch released an empirically grounded report about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in June and October last year.

State security apparatuses – from local police, inter-agency border patrols, the army and the navy – helped target Rohingya Muslims during the two bouts of violence, according to the report. As President Thein Sein presides over the country’s most powerful coordinating body, the National Security and Defense Council, the buck stops at his desk.

How could the ICG reconcile its official commendatory words about Thein Sein’s “efforts to bring us closer to a world free of conflict” when the Muslim Rohingya, Christian Kachins, who have been victims of a military onslaught for nearly two years in northern Burma, and the Buddhist Burmese farming communities in the resource-rich central Dry Zone are being subject to severe repression by Burmese state security organisations?

Do you really believe these conflicts are “a paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allow these local conflicts to resurface”, as the ICG’s Southeast Asia project director Jim DellaGiacoma said during an interview with the Associated Press on March 25 this year, just three days after an organised campaign of violence targeting Muslims erupted in Meikhtila and 15 other towns and locations across Burma?

If the ICG’s relevant experts on Burma and international conflicts take even a cursory glance at the existing scholarship on the subject of ethnic cleansing they would realise societal transitions are not necessarily accompanied with ethnic cleansing or mass atrocities. There are myriad factors that account for ethnic cleansing in societies under both democratic and undemocratic regimes. One alternative explanation is that the pogroms are a result of sinister political calculations created by the transitional government.

Curiously, your Burma experts have dismissed this distinct possibility with ample corroborating evidence. Perhaps, they were trying to save the ICG from international humiliation? In contrast, HRW’s report sheds light on the state’s direct and indirect involvement in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in western Burma last year. As Burma’s head of state, shouldn’t your peace award recipient be held accountable for the mass atrocities committed under his watch?

In fact, the ICG’s explanation that the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and atrocities against the Burmese Muslims are, unfortunately, the price Burma is paying for greater freedoms is as fantastical and credible as the immigration policies of the Thein Sein regime.

If you and your organisation’s strategic goal in analytically glossing over the dark side of Burma’s realities, as evidenced in just about every single ICG Burma report, is to provide the generals and ex-generals with ‘positive reinforcement’, do you think your strategy is prodding President Thein Sein’s government and its military in the right direction?

Judging by the fact that one of the Burmese guests of honour, Immigration Minister Khin Yi, was emphatically espousing Thein Sein government’s ‘solely blood-based’ line on Burmese citizenship in New York within 24 hours of his attendance at your “In Pursuit of Peace” gala dinner, the ICG’s strategy doesn’t seem to be positively affecting the character of Thein Sein’s government.

I hope to hear from you at your convenience.


Visiting Fellow

Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit

London School of Economics


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