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Whose side is the government on? Targeting of the Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma Leaves Civil Society Demanding Action

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, visits displacement camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State UN Photo/David Ohana

August 6, 2013
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.”
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
GCR2P have
recommend
ed
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 otherrestrictive
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 UnionBurma
Campaign UK
, and MRG have
urged the body not 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.”