Written evidence submitted by Burma Campaign UK
- Burma Campaign UK works for human rights, democracy and development in Burma and has been advocating for the rights of the Rohingya since 1992.
- Executive Summary
- The current crisis is a deliberate and pre-planned attempt to drive Rohingya out of Burma. As the United Nations has reported, the current violence did not begin on August 25th, but started weeks beforehand, including a military build-up in Rakhine State of soldiers from Light Infantry Division 33, notorious for use of rape and killing civilians in ethnic states.
- It follows a decades long policy of using human rights violations and deliberate impoverishment to drive Rohingya out of Burma.
- A consistent failure by the international community to defend the human rights of the Rohingya since repression increased from 2012 played a key role in allowing the situation to escalate to the current ethnic cleansing campaign.
- Severe restrictions on humanitarian aid access to Rohingya living in camps since 2012 killed people, contributed to high levels of malnutrition among children and deprived children of access to education and health services. The restrictions were effectively accepted by the British government and the international community which went ahead with other aid programmes requested by the government of Burma without insisting restrictions to Rohingya be lifted in return. The tick box approach of raising concerns over restrictions communicated to the Burmese government that Rohingya lives were expendable for what the British government appeared to consider the “greater good” of general development and reforms in Burma.
- After coming to power in 2016 Aung San Suu Kyi kept in place severe restrictions on humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State including to Rohingya living in camps since 2012. She did not need a year long investigation chaired by Kofi Annan to know that these restrictions were wrong and needed to be lifted immediately.
- Aid restrictions as a means of starving Rohingya out of the country
The Rohingya have long been the most persecuted minority in Burma. A key tool in their denial of rights is the 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively deprives them of citizenship. As a result, they face repression on a scale that other ethnic minorities do not, including at various times: restriction of movement, marriage and the number of children they can have, and access to higher education.
- In 2012 the situation for the Rohingya rapidly deteriorated, with two waves of violence against the Rohingya which displaced 140,000 people who ended up in IDP camps. Human Rights Watch concluded human rights violations at this time constituted crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. They also concluded that there was state involvement in these crimes.
- Humanitarian aid organisations and donors were at first apprehensive about providing aid to the camps, not wanting to be seen as helping the Burmese government to keep Rohingya in what became open-air prisons, or wanting to assist state segregation policies. In November 2012, 27 organisations, including Burma Campaign UK, issued a statement stating that “Given the current situation of segregation of the Rohingya community outside of the town in Sittwe, we understand that many agencies are hesitant to provide assistance to these camps because of a fear of being accused of colluding with the government’s segregationist policies. We appreciate the dilemma that this situation presents to donor governments and to humanitarian agencies, but we take the view that there is a humanitarian imperative to provide assistance without further delays. Anything that can be done to ameliorate the conditions in the Rohingya displacement camps must be done as a matter of urgency.”
- In the same statement, the undersigned organisations said that although providing lifesaving aid was the first priority, donor governments should also “(..) engage in robust advocacy demanding an end to segregation and requiring the government to produce a “road map” setting out its plans for reconciliation measures and returns, rebuilding of homes, and reintegration in Sittwe”. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Aid agencies on the ground stayed silent, fearing what access they had would be denied if they spoke out. Donor governments, including the British government, carried on other programmes assisting the government of Burma, relaxing pressure and moving closer to the military and government despite appalling conditions in the camps and no progress of resettlement and return.
- The Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Baroness Amos, said after visiting the camps in December 2012: “I have seen many camps during my time but the conditions in these camps rank among the worst. Unfortunately we as the United Nations are not able to get in and do the range of work we would like to do with those people, so the conditions are terrible … It’s a dire situation and we have to do something about it.”
- Those words were echoed by the UN Assistant General-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-hwa Kang, after visiting camps for internally displaced people in Rakhine State in June 2014: “I witnessed a level of human suffering in the IDP camps that I have personally never seen before … appalling conditions …. wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation.”
- In May 2015, 37 humanitarian aid and human rights advocacy organisations, including Burma Campaign UK, wrote to the then UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon asking him to take the lead in negotiating humanitarian access to Rakhine State directly with the Burmese government, in order to reach a breakthrough and to save lives. The organisations wrote in the letter “At least 70 per cent of Rohingya currently have no access to safe water or sanitation services. In Maungdaw Township, there is just one doctor per 160,000 people. The World Health Organisation recommends one doctor per 5,000 people. Only two per cent of Rohingya women give birth in a hospital. (…)While the crisis is most acute in the camps, it is important to note that around 800,000 Rohingya living outside the camps are also in urgent need of assistance. In some areas the rates of malnutrition are over 20 per cent and the provision of health services is almost non-existent.”
- This call was also repeated by 55 MPs who signed Early Day Motion 88 – Access for humanitarian agencies to Rakhine State in Burma – calling on the government to ask Ban Ki-moon to take a personal lead in negotiating aid access. When approached by Burma Campaign UK, the British government refused to support the call. Nor did Ban Ki-moon heed the call. The situation deteriorated further.
- Up until the 2015 elections in Burma, it was the military-backed government led by President Thein Sein, hailed around the world and by the British government as a reformer, that restricted aid access to both the camps and the wider Rakhine State as well. President Thein Sein attempted to use Buddhist nationalism and hatred of Rohingya and Muslims in general to build support and counter the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi.
- One of the most significant measures President Thein Sein took against the Rohingya was to refuse to include them in a census in 2014. DFID contributed £10m to the census and UNFPA provided expertise without making inclusion of the Rohingya a condition of support. They then went ahead with support even when President Thein Sein broke an agreement in principle to allow Rohingya to take part. Burma Campaign UK and other organisations warned about this problem and called for the census to be postponed. Raised tensions caused by the census resulted violence in which a child was killed and humanitarian aid workers evacuated. Rohingya children were left without medical support and were reported to have died because of the lack of humanitarian aid. More than a thousand supporters of Burma Campaign UK wrote to DFID calling on them to conduct an internal investigation into the decision to support the census but DFID did not agree. This consistent failure to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya is a key factor in encouraging the military in Burma to believe it can get away with ethnic cleansing.
- The deteriorating situation under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership
Far from improving the situation for the Rohingya as many hoped with the landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the 2015 elections, the situation for the Rohingya has deteriorated to its worst ever since the NLD-led government came to power.
- Under pressure to act on the treatment of the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi established the Rakhine Commission under former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan in 2016. Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesperson described the Commission as a shield against criticism. Aung San Suu Kyi also used it to deflect criticism over human rights violations against the Rohingya arguing we had to wait for its report, knowing full well she had excluded investigating human rights violations from its mandate.
- Lord Bates, Minister of State for the Department for International Development, answered a written parliamentary question in February 2017 about the levels of malnutrition in the IDP camps in Rakhine State: “There have been no significant restrictions on providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya in camps in Rakhine State. Malnutrition rates in camps remain poor by international standards, with 8.6% of people suffering acute malnutrition according to the most recent survey. This is comparable to other areas in Burma.” (HL5133) Lord Bates also said in the same answer: “Mortality data is not systematically collected by international agencies providing support to the camps.”
- This answer is consistent with an approach from the British Government and others that appears to play down the seriousness of the situation in the camps. To state that there are no significant restrictions is simply false. Use of acute malnutrition statistics rather than all malnutrition as asked also appears designed to present a misleading picture. Acute malnutrition is prioritised for treatment. General malnutrition rates are believed to be far higher. The answer also states how acute malnutrition figures are comparable to other areas, a fact not asked for in the question.
- On the rare occasions detailed information has been released, the UN has also backed down to criticism from the government of Burma. A World Food Program report released in July 2017 stated that 80,000 children under the age of five living in majority-Muslim areas in Rakhine State were wasting. The report was first released and reported on, and then it was retracted at the request of the Burmese government.
- It has been impossible to access detailed figures about malnutrition, health, mortality, disease, assistance to pregnant women and access to health education both in the camps in Rakhine State and in the whole of the state. Either these statistics have not been collected by donor governments or aid organisations, or they have been supressed. Either way, it has served to protect the Burmese government from criticism and helped perpetuate the current unacceptable situation.
- On 31st July WFP energy biscuits were found in an alleged ARSA camp. The Burmese government published pictures of the biscuits in state or social media almost every day for the following month, implying that the UN was helping terrorists. In a context of the local population already perceiving UN bias in favour of the Rohingya and previous attacks on aid agencies, it is hard to see this as anything other than incitement for attacks or using this to justify restricting the operations of aid agencies.
- Prevention and preparation
Since the attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in October 2016, and the military response to them, it has just been a matter of time before further ARSA attacks prompted a similar military response. It had been widely discussed within the diplomatic and humanitarian aid community in Burma. No-one expected a military response as systematic and on the scale that has happened, but we all knew it was coming.
- On 21st August 2017, four days before the ethnic cleansing campaign began, Burma Campaign UK published a statement calling on the British government to bring the situation to the UN Security Council calling for urgent action and pressure on the Burmese government and military to halt rising tensions and likely violence. Hundreds of our supporters emailed the Foreign Secretary calling for him to take this action. He did not.
- Questions have to be asked why so little was done to try to prevent the current violence given that it was so widely predicted and tensions were growing in the previous weeks and months. This also relates to the humanitarian situation. It was always likely that tens of thousands of Rohingya would flee to Bangladesh, but there appears to have been little preparation. This failure to prepare for conflict and subsequent displacement and humanitarian crisis in Burma or its neighbours is a consistent problem we have witnessed over the past 25 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been praised for her commitment to repatriation of Rohingya refugees but this praise is premature in the view of Burma Campaign UK.
- Our main concern lies in the security and human rights of those who return. Rohingya will be returning to a country where they have no rights.
- The government still does not accept that they belong in Burma. Even if returned, they are likely to face the verification system under the 1982 Citizenship Law, which has effectively deprived them of citizenship and rendered them stateless. First they are required to accept national registration cards only given to foreigners, before they are then required to go through a process of proving their ancestors were in Burma before 1824. For many, this will be impossible.
- They are unlikely to be able to return to their own villages, farms and homes, most of which have been destroyed and for many their land is already being allocated to ethnic Rakhine or claimed by the government. Instead they will most likely end up in prison camps branded as ‘model villages’. Movement to and from these camps will be severely limited. Farmland and opportunities to trade will be so severely limited as to make it almost impossible to earn a livelihood, and the people within will be impoverished and dependent on aid.
- Aid to these camps will be severely restricted, as it has been for those in camps since 2012. These restrictions cause loss of life and immense suffering. Health services and education opportunities are severely limited. Those who return will not have the right to vote.
- Even if the intentions of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government were good, for which there is no practical evidence to date, her government is unable to guarantee the safety of those who return. They cannot control police or security forces, who may stand by or even take part in attacks on camps where Rohingya are held. Nor can the government prevent further military attacks aimed at driving the Rohingya in the camps out of Burma again.
- The recommendations of the Kofi Annan chaired Rakhine Advisory Commission are not just a tick box exercise. They require a sea change in attitude which simply does not exist from Aung San Suu Kyi or her government. The Minister in charge of overseeing its implementation has claimed that Rohingya deliberately fled to Bangladesh to make it look like ethnic cleansing was happening.
- The British government’s lack of action
The British government has stated that it is leading the world response to the Rohingya crisis. It is true that is has been at the forefront of meetings at the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly. It has also been leading in the aid effort in Bangladesh for the over 800,000 Rohingya refugees that are there now. However, there have been little concrete measures taken to press the Burmese government to allow unrestricted aid access to Rakhine State.
- On a number of occasions, when asked in Parliament, government representatives have said that they have called on the Burmese government to allow unhindered aid access to Rakhine State. But no concrete measures have been set out on how or in what way they are pressing the Burmese government to do so.
- As shown, restricting lifesaving aid to Rohingya has been ongoing for many years, and little has been done by governments, including the British government, to challenge this. Neither has the state discrimination that the Rohingya face been challenged. The oppression of Rohingya has been orchestrated by the Burmese state, and the international community has not done enough to challenge or reverse it.
- The false threat of a military coup, used as an excuse for inaction, is a continuation of the approach that the Rohingya are expendable for the ‘greater good’ of reforms in Burma.
- There are in effect two governments in Burma. One part is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the other by Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military. Both parts are engaged in human rights violations against the Rohingya, and both are violating international law. The military campaigns since October 2016 are the most serious violations but they are built on government laws and policies. Neither Min Aung Hlaing nor Aung San Suu Kyi will voluntarily respect the rights of the Rohingya. Nor will they face pressure from within Burma to do so. Only international pressure will force them to change their behaviour towards human rights and humanitarian access.
- Different approaches are required for each. The military should face targeted diplomatic, economic and legal pressure. Even if faced with a veto from Russia and China, the British government should support in principle a UN mandated global arms embargo and referral to the International Criminal Court. A complete revaluation of the relationship and support given to the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be conducted. The British government must no longer look the other way in the face of repression of the Rohingya for what they consider the ‘greater good’ of reforms in the country.
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