9-21-2012By Samane Hemmat
Crimes Against Humanity Program
On August 29th, the U.S. government waived travel sanctions against U Thein Sein, Burma’s President and former general of Burma’s dissolved military regime, allowing him to travel freely during his visit to the UN General Assembly this month. The United States also eased economic sanctions against Burma this year, allowing U.S. businesses to invest in the heavily sanctioned country.
The Obama Administration hopes to encourage further reforms by lifting sanctions. But in doing so, it is overlooking the suffering of a group the UN designates as one of the world’s most heavily persecuted communities, the Rohingya Muslims. When President Thein Sein makes his visit to New York next week, U.S. government officials should constructively press him on the Rohingya issue.
Beyond the now lifted travel sanction for Thein Sein, the United States maintains a number of sanctions against Burma, including:
- Visa and financial restrictions against certain Burmese government officials, members of their families, and their business associates;
- Asset freezes;
- Prohibitions on importation of Burmese goods; and
- Restrictions on bilateral and multilateral assistance to Burma.
Sanctions against Burma began in the 1990s following the military junta’s, Tatmadaw’s, violent suppression of popular protests. They continue today in light of the government’s general disregard for the human rights and civil liberties. The recent easing off of sanctions are a reward for initiatives championed by President Thein Sein since August 2011, including deregulating the media, freeing political prisoners and halting the country’s controversial Chinese-led hydropower project.
Yet, as the Burmese government moves forward on these specific reforms, it continues to oppress its ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya Muslims. Rohingya have lived in Burma’s Rakhine state for centuries, but Burmese authorities have viewed them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and successive Burmese governments have denied them citizenship. The Rohingya people who account for about 4% of the total Muslim population in Burma, are subjected to forced labor, extortion, restricted movement, the absence of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations and land confiscation, amongst other constraints. With the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Act, they were officially rendered stateless.
In June, long simmering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine erupted into violence sparked by the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. The mob violence against Rohingya communities that followed this incident culminated in cries for a Rohingya-free Burma.
Historically, as this incident indicates, the Burmese government has not only failed in its responsibility to uphold the rule of law, it has also systematically failed to protect this stateless minority from targeted attacks and has itself been accused of pursuing a policy of persecution toward Rohingya. Human rights monitoring organizations have documented cases of Burmese security forces committing killings, rape, and mass arrests of Rohingya Muslims. Witnesses have recounted security forces torching their houses, looting, killing, and rounding up unarmed Rohingyas who have now been disappeared. Moreover, humanitarian agencies trying to provide aid have been threatened and their work brought to a standstill, depriving thousands of food, medical care and shelter.
The government made its intentions clear in July when President Thein Sein met the UN High Commission for Refugees Antonio Guterres and suggested that the only solution was to send the Rohingya to UN-administered camps or to a third country. Meanwhile, some 650 Rohingyas have been massacred, 1,200 are missing, and more than 80,000 are displaced. Fleeing from increasing discrimination and systematic persecution, thousands seek refuge in Bangladesh only to be rejected once again. Bangladesh has turned back more than 1,300 Rohingya refugees and banned humanitarian aid to the more than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims already in the country.
After many decades of political and economic isolation, the recent wave of reforms by President Thein Sein, steps that have ushered in hope of democratic reform, seem to be motivated by the government’s desire for international legitimacy and removal of economic sanctions. However promising these reforms may be, they do not relinquish Burma’s new government from its obligations under international law that require the state to protect its ethnic minorities – including the Rohingya. In fact, such pluralism and socio-political inclusion would be seen as an essential cornerstone to delivering real democratic reform.
The United States can play a critical role in preventing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya by addressing this issue directly with the Burmese government and through its newly created Atrocity Prevention Board, which should closely monitor this community as potentially at risk for mass atrocities. During President Thein Sein’s upcoming trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, the United States Government should be clear that more decisive action is needed to fulfill Burma’s international obligation to protect the Rohingya. They must also make clear to President Thein Sein that he must hold accountable security forces guilty of targeting the group. The U.S. should leave no doubt that the lifting of U.S. sanctions will depend on President Thein Sein’s actual delivery on the full and broad panoply of promised reforms, including protection of all minorities. While easing of sanctions acts as an incentive to reformists in Burma, the United States must not ignore the plight of the Rohingya.