On 3 June 2012, the killing and reported rape of a Buddhist woman followed by the massacre of ten Muslims traveling in Rakhine state marked the beginning of a series of violent attacks against the Rohingya communities, their townships and residents in Myanmar/Burma causing widespread destruction of Muslim neighborhoods, mosques and villages and massive displacement. Human Rights Watch‘s (HRW) report “All You Can Do is Pray“, documents a number of violent incidences against the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population that has long been discriminated against in Myanmar/Burma and the region, since the attacks; including government backed “crimes against humanity” committed against them during a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. Despite the government appointed Rakhine Commission’s attempt to provide recommendations for improving the ethnic tensions between the Rohingya and the Buddhist populations in Myanmar/Burma, the report failed to effectively tackle the discrimination against the Rohingya. Instead, authorities continue to reinforce the segregation of this population through discriminatory laws and practices that underpin their lack of citizenship and their mistreatment, while also ignoring the violent attacks on Muslim neighborhoods that have continued.
Civil society and UN actors point to the government’s involvement
Under the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), it is the primary responsibility of the state to protect all populations from crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes, but in Myanmar/Burma, the government is not assuming this role. To alleviate this tension between the Rohingya minority and the Buddhist population, the Rahkine Commission, a 27 member body which was appointed in August 2012 to examine the causes of the violence between the groups, called for a doubling of security forces in Rakhine State. This is concerning given the number of reports pointing to the involvement of those tasked to restore order – the government, local security forces (including police, inter-agency border control and the army) – in the victimization of the Rohingya. At the United Nations (UN) level, UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights situation in Burma, Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana has said Muslims were clearly targeted with brutal efficiency during attacks on property and the killing of a several Rohingyas. He went on to confirm he received reports of “state involvement in some acts of violence”, including military and police standing by while atrocities are committed as well as evidence of direct involvement of supporting well organized Buddhist gangs in their attacks. One of Burma Campaign UK‘s, latest reports concluded that the targeting of the Rohingya – which includes attacks based solely on identity and the implementation of a number of discriminatory laws, such as the 1982 Citizenship Law denying the population citizenship – violates at least eight international human rights laws and treaty obligations. The UN and a number of civil society organizations, including Amnesty International (AI) and Burma Campaign UK, have expressed concern over the lack of recommendations of the Commission to address issues related to impunity, and the discriminatory laws, as well as the state’s failure to stop “incitement of hatred and violence against Muslims.” The government has failed to address the root causes of the clashes between the groups and implement effective policies to tackle intolerance and promote religious and societal harmony, which, as the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) declares, shows that the government, is “failing their duty of the Responsibility to Protect.”
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, visits displacement camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State UN Photo/David Ohana
Quelling ethnic tension: Beyond the Commission’s recommendations
Civil society organizations have been at the forefront of demanding action and issuing recommendations to quell ethnic tensions, which vary from calling for the implementation of comprehensive reconciliation plans, urging the international community to pressure the government to reverse discriminatory policies, establishing an in-country office UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and addressing the humanitarian situation with unrestrictive access for aid delivery. The most debated issues are how to end impunity and resolve the statelessness of the Rohingya population caused by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which does not recognize Rohingyas as one of the 135 legally recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar/Burma.
Calls for ensuring justice and putting an end to impunity
According to ALTSEAN-Burma, and Minority Rights Group International (MRG), the Commission has failed to hold accountable those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas. Echoing this, Mr. Quintana stresses that “holding to account those responsible will also be an integral part of restoring relations of trust and harmony between different ethnic and religious communities.” Group such as AI and GCR2Phave recommended impartial investigations to tackle the culture of impunity while HRW has more controversially called for “an independent international commission to investigate crimes against humanity.” At the government level, the United Kingdom is a little apprehensive to undertake such bold action, stopping short of proposing to set up an independent international investigation, but rather asking for the Myanmar/Burma government to conduct an “independent investigative work” to assess “whether ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed” – a step Burma Campaign UK believes is useless unless it is an “international” investigation. Mr. Quintana, concerned about how accountability will be ensured going forward, supports AI‘s suggestions that in addition to ending impunity a “comprehensive reform of the security forces, including the establishment of robust accountability mechanisms, adequate vetting systems and training on relevant international standards, is also essential.”
Deciding on what it means to be Burmese
While accountability for past crimes is vital, preventing further tensions requires addressing the root causes of the problem as well. At the heart of the issue is the government’s 1982 Citizenship Act, which denies the Rohingya population national citizenship. Under international human rights standards no person can be left stateless and therefore this denied access is a form of discrimination that needs to be urgently addressed. As if statelessness was not enough, there are a number of other restrictive laws and tight regulations, including restrictions on travel, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage and land ownership, that target the Rohingya and deny them basic rights guaranteed in international law. Civil society organizations, such MRG, were hoping the Commission would call for a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law; however, the government made it clear it has no intention to do so. In fact, the authorities seem adamant to continue the policies reinforcing the Two-Child Policy that controls the growth of the Rohingya population, an action that HRW declares “could amount to crimes against humanity” and as such must be publicly revoked immediately. Burma Campaign UK‘s approach is different, believing that a cultural change is just as important as the reversal of the discriminatory laws. According to the organization, the society needs to decide what it means to be Burmese and “there needs to be an acceptance that Burma is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and people from different ethnic groups can live side by side.”
The Responsibility to Assist
RtoP outlines that it is also the responsibility of the international community to assist in building the capacity of states to ensure the protection of populations against any of the four crimes and violations. For the Asia-Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect, this should be in the way of building the capacity of Myanmar’s/Burma’s authorities to manage ethnic relations and inter-faith communal dialogue. Others, like the GCR2P, are calling for the international community to pressure the government to prioritize the development of a comprehensive reconciliation plan to engage ethnic minorities. Targeting the European Union, Burma Campaign UK, and MRG have urged the bodynot to lift sanctions against the government and have encouraged that diplomatic relations with Myanmar/Burma must remain limited. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the persecution and violence of the Rohingyas, and requesting the revocation of the discriminatory polices. Regardless of the action that has been taken or called for, as Burma Campaign UK points out, the international community must remind the government of their international commitment to the responsibility to protect, and to put pressure where needed to demand action to protect populations.
Going forward: Protection free of discrimination
While RtoP outlines the obligations of all governments and the international community to to protect populations from atrocities, in the case of Myanmar/Burma, amounting evidence suggests more needs to be done to ensure such protection. As UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said in his March 25 statement on the crisis, “there is a considerable risk of further violence if measures are not put in place to prevent this escalation.” As many civil society groups have said, both the international community and the Myanmar/Burma authorities need to come together and implement measures to prevent future crimes and address the underlying issues that foster the continued discrimination against the Rohingya; however, exactly how this is to be done remains unclear and debated. As AI declares, what is certain is that “the Myanmar authorities are responsible for ensuring protection of people, their homes and livelihoods. While doing so, they must ensure protection of all communities without discrimination.”