By Mark Farmaner, Director, Burma Campaign UK
Following the military offensive against the Rohingya in October 2016, in which around 80,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and there were credible reports of executions and mass use of rape, the British Foreign Office, which had previously rejected calls to support a UN Commission of Inquiry on violations of international law in Burma, decided to review its position.
Then in January 2017, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Burma, and met with Aung San Suu Kyi. The phenomenon described by one human rights activist in Burma as ‘strong men melting like ice cream when they meet Aung San Suu Kyi’ appeared to strike again. The Foreign Office decided not to support a Commission of Inquiry. (Pressure on the EU after it had drafted a resolution for the Human Rights Council without support for a Commission of Inquiry led to the EU compromising and the establishment of a Fact Finding Mission.)
Under Boris Johnson the policy continued of treating Burma as if it were a country in transition to democracy where human rights abuses were largely a legacy of the past, rather than a result of proactive policies pursued by both the military and the government.
Regular visits to the country, even seeing the devastation in Rakhine State, did not seem to instil in him any understanding of the situation in the country or the need for coherent action to prevent further human rights violations.
After the Rohingya crisis began in 2017, he was slow to respond and weak when he finally did. On military training, Downing Street had to overrule the Foreign Office, which was still sending people out on media to defend the training on the same morning Number 10 announced the training would be suspended.
Boris Johnson diverged from his ministers who, as the scale of the crisis emerged, became more vocal on the need for justice and accountability. Instead he said it could be ethnic cleansing if Rohingya were not allowed back. A statement that is simply factually wrong.
Boris Johnson ignored Parliament on Burma in a way none of his predecessors have. Findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry were largely ignored or rejected. While minister Mark Field MP spoke in Parliament about the need to reflect on past mistakes and accepted the Foreign Office may have made mistakes, the official Foreign Office response was to deny mistakes had been made over policy towards Burma and the Rohingya.
On supporting the UN Security Council referring Burma to the International Criminal Court, Boris Johnson resisted calls by Parliament to act. Pressure mounted, in debates, from the International Development Committee, from 100 Parliamentarians who wrote to him, from 86 MPs who signed an Early Day Motion, and yet still he did not budge. Instead the Foreign Office pressured Aung San Suu Kyi to establish her own inquiry, despite knowing such an inquiry will not be credible, and couldn’t be even if she wanted it to be as she does not control the military.
Under Boris Johnson British policy towards Burma has become out of date, is incoherent, inconsistent and often illogical and contradictory. It certainly hasn’t been effective.
Whether resistance to changing policy on Burma and prioritising human rights came from Boris Johnson himself, or whether he allowed one of his senior officials to set the agenda and obstruct change, was not clear.
Jeremy Hunt’s appointment is an opportunity for change. Ministers such as Mark Field, Alistair Burt and Lord Ahmad must now push for a complete review of policy towards Burma, as called for by the International Development Committee. One of the most urgent priorities must be British backing in principle for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court.
New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
The Foreign Office claims leadership on Burma globally, but even Lichtenstein has shown greater leadership, and is backing a referral. The Foreign Office needs to be working to build global support for an ICC referral, putting maximum pressure on China not to use its veto. In the process, with more and more countries and international bodies coming on board, Min Aung Hlaing’s sense of impunity will start to erode. He’ll have to make new calculations as to what he thinks the international community will allow him to get away with. That could save lives.
It is time for British policy to go beyond words and start translating into action that has an impact on the ground. Jeremy Hunt is lucky to have ministers under him who are engaged and informed about the situation. It appears they would like to go further, to listen to Parliament, and to act. Jeremy Hunt should let them do so. Continuing with the current failing approach isn’t an option.
By Paul Sztumpf
Refugee researcher, Burma Campaign UK
`The right of return’ is a fundamental right of all refugees, to voluntarily return to their country of origin or of citizenship and is enshrined in international law. However, as the thousands of Palestinians on the Gaza border are demonstrating, exercising that right is not that simple. Burma’s million refugees face similar problems, central to this is the concept of citizenship or country of origin. The Rohingya suffer a carefully constructed narrative that questions both their origin and citizenship. International law aside, for the refugees themselves there are the fundamental questions of is it safe to return and what are they returning to? Refugee camps on the Burma border are not holiday camps but more akin to large open prisons, fenced in, controlled by guards, personal freedom is restricted. The camp residents face mental health problems not just because of the traumas they have gone through but the hopelessness of their lives, the overcrowding and the day by day queuing for food, the latrines and safety is always a problem. The desire to return home is strong but to “what?” is the question.
The returning refugee is going to hope for papers that prove citizenship to minimize future status questions by the authorities, a return to their lost homes, livelihoods and the ability to live in relative safety. The Rohingya know that at best they are being offered some form of second class citizenship but may well not even get that but some other papers that will allow them to live in Burma but under numerous controls. However, even then, what will they return to and how safe will they be? Most Rohingya were farmers and shop keepers before fleeing. The shops are long gone and the farms have often been taken over by others. As one local lawmaker put it “it’s not a good idea to leave those farm lands unattended. Local ethnic people and landless farmers should be allowed to farm there if they wish”. There are also unverified reports of land being leased to private companies. The reality on the ground for returning refugees is that returning to their villages and rebuilding lives is simply not on offer. What exactly is on offer is not clear. One suspects government controlled villages akin to open prisons where the guards may well be the very rapists and arsonists that Rohingya fled from and that work will be provided, maybe on the company farm that leases the Rohingya land from the government. This speculative view of the refugee’s future unfortunately has an all too believable ring to it.
Burma’s 100,000 Karen, Karenni and Mon refugees on the eastern border have many of the same problems with the added danger of landmines which have taken a heavy toll on limbs and lives. Some of these refugees are returning home, some in fear, others more hopeful, however the numbers of returnees are small. UNHCR rightly focus on the Rohingya but other refugees must not be forgotten.
A refugee child at Ei Tu Hta IDP camp in Karen State, Burma.
It has been reported that the UNHCR have made secret agreements with the Burmese Government on the Rohingya’s future and that an investigation commission with outside representation will determine the true events leading up to the Rohingya exodus. Based on past experience few trust secret agreements or Burma government commissions. However, in the end it may well be the forces of nature which determines the refugees future, the monsoon’s torrential rain has already exacerbated the suffering of the Rohingya, damaging and destroying the makeshift houses on the now treeless hilly terrain in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. This is only the start of the monsoon season.
The developed nations must accept that strategies of ignoring the plight of refugees or containing them in what are effectively open prisons will simply not work. Sooner or later the camps will flow over and cross borders, bringing desperate people to their borders. The international community must look deeper into the causes of people seeking refuge, face open-mindedly their own role in those causes. In Burma’s case the international community has, maybe unintentionally, rewarded the military for setting up a quasi-democracy and financed a peace process which is being cynically used to strengthen the military and undermine the confidence in ethnic nationality leaders. External investment has driven land grab from the poor and financial inequality has risen to unprecedented levels, with the military as the main benefactor. The international community needs to re-frame its aid and development program in Burma away from helping the powerful into one that helps create conditions refugees would willingly return to.
By Mark Farmaner, Director, Burma Campaign UK
Serious questions and doubts hang over the new MOU signed between the United Nations and the government of Burma on a supposed framework for creating conditions for safe return for Rohingya refugees.
For a start, to date, it’s a secret deal. It’s about the Rohingya but the Rohingya are not allowed to see it, let alone have an input into what it contained.
It allows the UN some access in Rakhine State but it is not clear how much. Will the UN have unrestricted access at last, or have they compromised? Even before the latest Rohingya crisis began in August last year, restrictions on humanitarian aid in Rakhine state were unacceptable and costing lives. Does this deal even take us back to that previous unacceptable situation?
The government of Burma should not be praised for merely returning access to the same, or less than, the situation prior to August 2017. The two steps back one step forward and then receive praise for the one step despite things being worse was a game successfully played over and over again by the previous military regime. It’s time to stop falling for it.
The UN says the agreement will allow it to provide independent information to Rohingya refugees about the conditions in their place of origin so that they can make informed decisions about return. (Link: http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/5/5b0fff7b4/unhcr-undp-agree-text-mou-myanmar-support-creation-conditions-return-rohingya.html) With the increased militarisation of Rakhine State, the situation can change very rapidly with soldiers being able to move into Rohingya villages even more quickly than before. The local and national situation can change very rapidly. While information about what happened to their homes and villages is obviously important, it’s the general political and security situation which is most important in allowing Rohingya to assess conditions for safe return.
The UN stated that the agreement “will affirm the Myanmar Government’s commitment to work with UNHCR and UNDP to find a solution for the Rohingya population, in line with the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The recommendations include establishing a clear and voluntary pathway to citizenship and ensuring freedom of movement for all people in Rakhine State, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or citizenship status.” (http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/5/5b0fff7b4/unhcr-undp-agree-text-mou-myanmar-support-creation-conditions-return-rohingya.html)
There are several concerns regarding this. The Burmese government accepted the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State ten months ago, yet there is little tangible evidence of any serious attempts to implement those recommendations since then, and there is no transparency in the process. There has been no movement at all on citizenship. Bill Richardson, who resigned from the Advisory Committee on the implementations of Rakhine Commission recommendations, described it as a whitewash. (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-rohingya-richardson-exclusive/exclusive-richardson-quits-myanmars-whitewash-rohingya-crisis-panel-idUKKBN1FD2OF)
The Advisory Commission recommendations on citizenship were a compromise and didn’t go as far as they should have.
The Commission recommends the Myanmar government implement the current 1982 Citizenship Law. This is despite the Commission itself stating: ‘Several aspects of the 1982 Citizenship Law are not in compliance with international standards and norms – such as the principle of non-discrimination under international law – as well as international treaties signed by Myanmar. Most notably, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).’ http://www.rakhinecommission.org/the-final-report/ ) The Rakhine Commission, is therefore, urging the government of Myanmar to more fully implement a law that violates international law.
The Rakhine Commission recommendation of an ‘acceleration of the citizenship verification process… under the 1982 Citizenship Law’ is unacceptable to most Rohingya and is no guarantee that citizenship will follow. It is a completely unnecessary step.
Given the track record of the Burmese government in delay and deceit, the Rakhine Commission recommendations on reform or repeal of the 1982 Citizenship Law are far too vague and weak when it comes to implementation.
It states: ‘..the Commission recommends the Government set in motion a process to review the law. As part of such a review, the Government might wish to consider the following: …Within a reasonable timeline, the Government should present a plan for the start of the process to review the Citizenship Law.’ They suggest the government ‘might wish’ to consider recommendations regarding changing the law which should be considered essential.
Given these concerns, the return of the use of language about ‘pathways’ to citizenship is especially worrying. This was compromise language that started to be more widely used by the international community after violence against the Rohingya in 2012, in the face of bullying by Thein Sein’s government, which dramatically escalated its demands that diplomats not use the word Rohingya. (http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/5/5b0fff7b4/unhcr-undp-agree-text-mou-myanmar-support-creation-conditions-return-rohingya.html)
Backing down to these demands was one of the first of many compromises made over the rights of the Rohingya which encouraged the Government to believe, so far correctly, that they could get away with what they have now done to the Rohingya. Until 2012, the EU, USA, UK and others had been unequivocal about the need to reform or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law. Agreeing to ‘pathway’ language was an ethical and tactical mistake which appears to be being repeated. The United Nations and the rest of the international community should be unequivocal about the need for immediate full citizenship for the Rohingya. This should be a minimum condition.
The agreement does not include the military. Of course, in general, agreements like this are made with governments, but not including the military ignores the reality on the ground. The government does not control the military. It cannot guarantee safety as the military can independently decide to launch another offensive against the Rohingya at any time. The military have made no commitment not to repeat what they have just done.
Also needing clarification is the claim that the UNHCR will be able to carry out protection activities. (http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/5/5b0fff7b4/unhcr-undp-agree-text-mou-myanmar-support-creation-conditions-return-rohingya.html) When tensions rise ahead of violence, the UN pulls staff out of areas where Rohingya live, or they are likely to be expelled in advance of any new military offensive. Given this, is there a danger that the UNHCR is giving Rohingya the impression the UN will protect them if they return, when in fact they are powerless to do so? What can UNHCR staff on the ground really do to protect villagers if the military arrive?
Comments by the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Knut Osby, about Rohingya “needing an identity” are also worrying and perhaps an indication of how much the UN is compromising and pandering towards the agenda of the government. (https://twitter.com/knutostby/status/1004669681045667840)
The Rohingya already have an identity. The problem is not that they need an identity, it is that the government of Burma is trying to deny that identity. The United Nations should be unequivocal in defending their right to their identity.
The UN Co-ordinator also conspicuously tried to avoid using the name Rohingya when talking about the agreement about the Rohingya, and the two paragraph UN statement on the agreement about the Rohingya also avoided using their name. (http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2018/UNDP-UNHCR-MOU-Myanmar.html) Not using the word Rohingya is not a neutral decision. It is backing down to the demands of racists who want to expel all Rohingya from Burma.
Any discussion about so-called safe, voluntary and dignified return cannot take place without taking into account the failure of the international community to provide adequate support to refugees who have fled to Bangladesh. As of 8th June 2018, the United Nations budget for supporting refugees and host communities was only 21 percent funded. Conditions in the camp are harsh, and the upcoming monsoon season will make things much worse. https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/international-development-committee/news-parliament-2017/bangladesh-and-burma-publication-17-19/
Rohingya living in camps in Bangladesh have not been demanding, safe, voluntary and dignified return, whatever that means. When the UN Security Council delegation visited the camps, their demands were clear. They called for immediate full citizenship as a condition for safe return. They called for justice and accountability, knowing that impunity encourages further violence against them.
While a renewed emphasis from the UN on citizenship is welcome, this agreement appears to have backed down to the Burmese government agenda of so-called pathways to citizenship. All evidence points to this being a delaying tactic, used by both Thein Sein’s government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. With her majority in Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi can pass a new citizenship law in line with international law and standards giving all Rohingya citizenship, any time she chooses. But the longer there is delay, the harder it will become.
Immediate movement on reforming or repealing citizenship must be an essential precondition for safe return.
Ensuring justice and accountability is also essential. No-one can seriously believe the government will conduct a credible investigation into what has happened. Every investigation has been a whitewash. Aung San Suu Kyi still has the notorious fake rape poster on her website: http://www.statecounsellor.gov.mm/en/node/551#
Min Aung Hlaing and his military have paid no price for what they have done. Support for an ICC referral and the prospect of justice and accountability would be one of the most effective ways to start a process of ensuring safe return. As long as Min Aung Hlaing believes he can keep getting away with violating international law, he will do so, as the escalating conflict in Kachin state demonstrates.
The new agreement between the United Nations and the government of Burma might be an important step forward in the public relations agenda of the government to try to avoid stronger internal pressure, but there is no indication yet that it is a step forward in ensuring safe return for the Rohingya and moving closer to a lasting solution. Making the agreement public would be one obvious way to alleviate concerns.