By Mark Farmaner, Director, Burma Campaign UK
The annual Myanmar trade and investment conference took place in London on Monday 18th March.
It is a strange event. British government officials, Burmese government officials, companies from Burma and British companies in Burma all get together and try to avoid talking about one of the main factors influencing investment in Burma, human rights.
The ‘Rakhine Situation’ was referred to by a couple of speakers, but not beyond those two words. Credit is due to the Foreign Office official who introduced the conference, who at least used the word Rohingya, and talked about the need for safe return.
The one speaker who did directly address the ‘Rakhine Situation’ in detail was U Thaung Tun, Union Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations. “Let me take the bull by the horns” he said, referring to the elephant in the room. He then went on to lie to the audience of potential investors. He said the government was committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission, even though they are not doing so. Referring to the events of August 2017 as attacks on police outposts resulting in ‘tensions’, he tried to frame what a year-long United Nations investigation concluded was genocide as being a problem of underdevelopment and lack of jobs.
The only official conference nod to human rights and ethical investment concerns was the presence on one panel of Vicky Bowman, head of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. The centre mostly works privately advising companies who have or are considering investing in Burma. This was a presentation well inside the comfort zone of companies. Vicky Bowman talked about risks such as avoiding pitfalls like land rights issues, rather than focussing on human rights. She was the only speaker who referred to the United Nations Fact Finding Mission report, but only in the context of pointing out that they said they did not support general trade sanctions. No mention was made of the fact that they described doing business with the military as indefensible.
Those attending the conference were given free copies of the Oxford Business Group’s new annual report on Burma, the production of which was paid for in part by a full page advert by Myanmar Brewery, part-owned by the military.
Another panel was chaired by someone from the CDC, a development finance institution owned by the UK government. The CDC used British aid money to invest in a company which now works for the Burmese military. So the Burmese military has benefited from British aid and investment. No mention of these kinds of problems was made by conference speakers.
Human rights are a major factor influencing investment in the country, but conferences like this which avoid and skirt around the issue for fear of putting investors off are doing a disservice to human rights, to investors, and to the people of Burma who desperately need jobs and economic development.
The way to promote investment is not to pretend that human rights problems don’t exist, or even, as the British government did for many years, proactively downplay human rights problems. By doing so you don’t solve the problem.
Unless potential new investors at the conference were particularly gullible, they would have left the conference with a feeling of not having got the full picture. That’s because they didn’t. Potential investors were being pitched investment in Burma, but the sales pitch left out vital information. That creates uncertainty, which deters investment.
To acknowledge and discuss the great number of human rights concerns in Burma, and to go into more detail about the risks, would leave potential investors more informed and therefore more confident in how to invest. They need information about the need to avoid projects linked to human rights violations and the sectors where this is high risk. They need to know about the dangers of going into business with the military, and what potential sanctions could be imposed in the future by the international community.
It is relevant to their investment that the government has more than 100 political prisoners in jail, represses free media and refuses to give the Rohingya their right to citizenship. Yes, they can get this information elsewhere outside the conference, but that applies to every other issue which was discussed at the conference. Ignoring these issues at the conference is a flawed approach.
Burmese government officials need to be reminded at every opportunity that their government’s human rights record is a hindrance to the trade and investment they seek. They might not like it, but they have to face it, and without this kind of pressure, the situation won’t improve.
While there are now some calls for broader trade sanctions, in general many calls for sanctions and international action are focusing on the military, and on specific projects and industries where there are concerns linked to conflict, environmental destruction and human rights violations.
It is perfectly possible for investors to enter Burma taking these factors into account, with little or no reputational risk. If they are not well informed in this way, the default is ‘why take the risk’? Burma Campaign UK has spoken with big multinational companies who have a broad negative impression and decided to avoid risk by not going into the country. The current approach to promoting investment has left them uninformed.
Being upfront about potential problems could also help prevent companies making mistakes.
It should not be assumed that companies go into Burma being well informed about the country or who they are doing business with. Since Burma Campaign UK revived the ‘Dirty List’ of international companies linked to the military or human rights violations, we have come across companies with a stunning lack of knowledge about the country in which they operate and who their business partners are. They are making mistakes which link them to a genocidal military, conflict and human rights violations. Some companies don’t care either way, but some companies have been genuinely surprised when we have contacted them about their operations and who their business partners and clients are.
The most impressive panel of the day was with U Bo Bo Nge, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, U Sett Aung, Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance, and U Min Ye Paing Hein, National Economic Coordinating Committee Member. They had so much passion and commitment to driving forward economic reform to enable economic development. They have driven through significant change. I cannot imagine the kind of internal battles they must have fought against those within government who would have tried to resist these changes. They would have been up against inertia, incompetence, corruption and vested interests, but against the odds, they are making things happen.
Their work, however, is being undermined by their political masters in government, and by the military, both of which do not respect human rights.
For those outside ethnic states bearing brunt of military oppression, jobs are one of their top demands. Economic development is essential, but it isn’t talking about human rights problems which undermines economic development, it is failing to tackle human rights problems which undermines economic development.
Those involved in the organisation of the conference, the Department for International Trade, UK-ASEAN Business Council, Oxford Business Group, and others, need to stop ignoring the elephant in the room.
By Mark Farmaner
The EU is considering sanctioning garment workers but has rejected sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing
When the United Nations Fact Finding Mission published its report into human rights violations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States, it was quite clear who bore primary responsibility for violations of international law, including genocide – the Burmese military. In particular, their report called for action against the leadership of the military, including Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
To date the EU has not accepted either the findings or the recommendations of the UN investigation, which they themselves helped set up. Instead they have decided to look into sanctioning people who played no role in human rights violations against the Rohingya, Shan or Kachin. They have decided to look into sanctioning ordinary workers, mainly garment workers.
This week an EU delegation is visiting Burma as part of a review ordered by Cecilia Malmström, the EU Trade Commissioner. They are considering withdrawing ‘Everything But Arms’ trade privileges awarded to Burma, which reduces tariffs and makes Burma’s exports more competitive than those from more developed countries. This is a sanction which will have virtually no impact on the Burmese military or on the government. Instead it risks putting tens of thousands of ordinary workers out of work.
The decision is even more extraordinary because the EU has made a specific and deliberate decision not to sanction Min Aung Hlaing. He is not one of the seven people the EU have banned from holidaying in the EU because of their role in the genocide of the Rohingya.
Here is a list of 15 things the EU has been asked to do, and which it has failed to do, all of which would be far more effective at applying pressure on the Burmese military and government than the withdrawal of trade privileges:
- The EU decided not to support referring Burma to the International Criminal Court.
- The EU does not support the creation of an alternative Ad Hoc Tribunal if support for an ICC referral cannot be secured.
- The EU decided not to ban EU members from training the Burmese military.
- The EU refuses to reveal which (if any) EU members are still training the military. (The EU ambassador to Burma, Kristian Schmidt, told Burma Campaign UK he would do so, then broke his word and now refuses to release the information.)
- EU officials in Burma still back down to the demands of racists and largely avoid using the word Rohingya in public statements and meetings with the government.
- The EU refuses to stop funding and training the military-controlled police force, which still uses torture and was responsible for arresting and framing the jailed Reuters journalists.
- The EU refuses to stop European companies from supplying equipment to the military (apart from arms).
- The EU does not ensure that the EAS/Commission and EU member states do not source goods and services from military owned and controlled companies.
- The EU and member states have not imposed policies to ensure no EU aid goes to military owned and controlled companies for the supply of goods and services.
- The EU refuses to impose sanctions limiting military owned and controlled companies’ access to European financial markets and the use of the euro.
- The EU has not supported the findings of the UN Fact Finding Mission.
- The EU has not supported the recommendations of the UN Fact Finding Mission.
- The EU refuses to review and consider ending direct and indirect financial and technical support to the Burmese government.
- The EU does not support the imposition of a UN mandated global arms embargo.
- The EU has not stopped channelling aid and development assistance to and through the Burmese government.
It makes absolutely no sense that the European Union is considering sanctions that will mainly impact ordinary people while at the same time rejecting sanctions that target Min Aung Hlaing and his military.
At present the only sanctions from the EU in response to genocide of the Rohingya, war crimes and crimes against humanity against other ethnic groups, and a huge range of other human rights violations by both the military and the government, has been to stop seven people, not including Min Aung Hlaing or senior military officers, from going on holiday in the EU. It is, therefore, not surprising that EU sanctions have not been effective in influencing the Burmese military or government.
The bizarre decision by the EU Trade Commissioner is just the latest in its long history of catastrophically bad decision making over its Burma policy.
Through its actions and inaction from 2012, the European Union contributed to the enabling environment whereby Min Aung Hlaing believed (so far correctly) he could get away with genocide of the Rohingya.
Burma Campaign UK submitted details of British government and EU complicity in this crisis to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament when it held an inquiry into what had taken place.
To date the European Union has done little to disabuse Min Aung Hlaing of the impression they’ll keep letting him get away with violating international law, especially when they deliberately avoid sanctioning him. Does the EU seriously think that having given him a personal free pass, Min Aung Hlaing will be so concerned by the EU sanctioning garment workers that he’ll change his behaviour?
As members of the European Burma Network pointed out in a joint statement: “Withdrawing these trade privileges will have a disproportionate impact on ordinary people who have played no role in human rights violations against the Rohingya and others, and in fact themselves suffer from a lack of human rights and genuine democracy in Burma.”
Further, the impact of these particular sanctions on the military and government is likely to be limited compared to many other options available. It appears contradictory to impose sanctions which may predominantly impact garment workers, whilst at the same time still funding and otherwise supporting both the government and the military controlled police force.
There is a danger such sanctions could be blamed on the Rohingya, further hardening public sentiment against them. There is also a danger that these kind of untargeted sanctions and their impact on ordinary people will discredit all sanctions in the public mind and in the media, making it harder to secure support for sanctions that actually will have an impact.
Any sanctions imposed by the EU must predominantly target the military and its interests, and minimise as far as possible any impact on ordinary people in Burma.
No-one has been calling for the kind of sanctions Cecilia Malmström is now considering. Burma Campaign UK is also not aware of any EU member state supporting the withdrawal of these trade privileges. So far it appears none have been willing to publicly say so. This has to change. Cecilia Malmström may have the technical power to go ahead with these sanctions without the support of member states, but it is not a power she should use.
This review should be stopped immediately, and instead EU member states need to look again at targeted sanctions on the military, including supporting ICC referral or an alternative ad hoc tribunal. Punishing garment workers for the actions of the military is completely unacceptable, and EU member states must say so.
Perhaps the one thing we can be grateful to Cecilia Malmström for is exposing just how hopeless, contradictory and illogical the EU approach to Burma is.
Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Burma last week, and his approach was very different from his predecessor, Boris Johnson.
Before his visit Jeremy Hunt met with members of the Rohingya community the UK, something Boris Johnson never bothered to do, despite questions in Parliament from MPs wanting him to do so.
On arrival one of the first things Jeremy Hunt did was visit a museum set up by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPPB), an organisation Burma Campaign UK has worked closely with for decades. This is a significant and very welcome change in approach. In recent years, Boris Johnson and other ministers have not even raised the issue of political prisoners in discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Around 70 political prisoners are in jail in Burma today, with many more awaiting trial. Under Burma’s constitution the President has the power to issue an amnesty and release every one of those political prisoners. The President answers to Aung San Suu Kyi, so the decision on whether or not to release them lies with her. She should be facing just as much pressure to release political prisoners as Than Shwe, the former dictator, did.
Jeremy Hunt heard first-hand from former political prisoners about the need for all political prisoners to be released and the need for the repressive laws used to jail them to be repealed. He later raised with Aung San Suu Kyi the case of the two Reuters journalists recently sentenced to seven years in jail for exposing a massacre of Rohingya villagers.
On safe return to Burma for Rohingya refugees, the meaningless waffle about ‘safe, dignified and voluntary return’ has been dropped. Instead, Jeremy Hunt has said exactly what Rohingya, Burma Campaign UK and others have been saying all along. There cannot be safe return without justice and accountability. On Twitter Jeremy Hunt stated:
“We absolutely do support the repatriation and safe return of the Rohingya – but to do that there needs to be accountability and justice for any atrocities otherwise understandably they will be too terrified to risk the journey.”
There has also been a change in approach regarding the need for international action on justice and accountability. Support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s farcical domestic enquiry appears to be being dropped. “If there is not going to be accountability and justice in Burma, then the international community needs to look at all options including ICC referral,” Jeremy Hunt said during his visit. He has stated he will discuss options with world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week.
A new proposal is being floated for a Burma specific international criminal tribunal to be established. This was the method used to investigate international crimes before the International Criminal Court was established, for example on Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.
Establishing such a tribunal would still require a UN Security Council Resolution, and therefore come up against a potential veto from China, so some are questing why this is being suggested. One possible reason could be the recent attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC) by senior White House officials. The US has a longstanding opposition to the ICC but abstained on the referral of the situation in Sudan regarding Darfur. The severity of the new attacks by American officials on the ICC makes it unclear if they would abstain or even oppose a resolution on referring Burma. A separate new tribunal might be a way of securing US support.
Jeremy Hunt should still explicitly state that Britain supports in principle referring Burma to the International Criminal Court. The situation in Burma is exactly the kind of situation the ICC was created for. Support for ICC referral sends an important political message to Min Aung Hlaing and will erode his sense of impunity. However, if the proposal for a separate tribunal seems more likely to garner support this could be an alternative option where diplomatic efforts are made. There needs to be a lot more transparency about the specifics. Given the recent track record of the Foreign Office, there is a lot of suspicion about their true intentions. Past language about ensuring justice and accountability was nothing more than hot air. The words were used but were not reinforced by action. The Foreign Office will need to understand and takes steps to address the deep suspicions of their intentions caused by their previous approach.
The British government has been under intense pressure from Parliament, Rohingya communities and human rights organisations over its approach to Burma. 160 Parliamentarian wrote to the Prime Ministers calling for support for ICC referral. Under Boris Johnson, the Foreign Office was not responsive to the concerns raised, ploughing on with the same outdated and failed approach as before the crisis. So far, Jeremy Hunt appears more willing to listen to and act on concerns raised.
He is no doubt facing down opposition within the Foreign Office. Those who have opposed taking a more robust stance on human rights will be citing the refusal of Min Aung Hlaing and his military to meet with Jeremy Hunt as evidence that a stronger stance is a mistake. They argue that keeping channels of communication open with the military is vital. At the same time though, they will be unable to cite a single example of how those lines of communication have led to any positive change in any area. The Foreign Office must be willing to meet and engage with the military, but not if the condition of such meetings is that they have to be silent on human rights violations and fail to act to ensure justice and accountability in response to genocide.
DFID staff in Burma will also likely be opposing this new approach. In the week before his visit, in evidence to the International Development Committee, DFID was still putting forward the same old tired and discredited arguments as an excuse for inaction and continuing unconditional support for Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is constrained in some areas. It is true that she does not control the military. The British government appears to take the view that she is the best and only hope for a more positive future for the country, and that despite her flaws, no-one better is waiting in the side-lines. To date, as DFID still articulate, this has led to a very uncritical approach towards her and her government. In effect, she has pretty much been given a free pass on the many human rights violations for which she is responsible as it is seen that she is the only option and has be to backed for the sake of the ‘greater good’.
As far as the Foreign Office is concerned, this appears to have changed slightly now. Visiting AAPPB and meeting with former political prisoners who are lobbying her to release political prisoners will not have pleased Aung San Suu Kyi. The visit itself delivered a message to her. It’s a welcome first step, but much more pressure is needed.
We have seen a change in approach, a change in tone, but not yet seen substantive proposals that will demonstrate that there genuinely is a change of policy. Support for ICC referral remains critical. Pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to change or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law and immediately give citizenship to the Rohingya is urgently needed. The political calendar in Burma means there may only be a 15 month window left for this to happen. A change in approach needs to feed through into how the UK leads at the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and within the EU. The first draft of the EU Human Rights Council Resolution was pathetically weak. The British government helped make it better, but the Resolution is still far from good enough. They need to go back to their old approach of building alliances and pushing hard within the EU for stronger action.
Jeremy Hunt should support all the recommendations from the United Nations Fact Finding Mission. If he decides to support the establishment of a new tribunal, he needs to demonstrate that it truly is a genuine attempt to ensure justice and accountability.
He should also look again at reports from the Foreign Affairs Committee and International Development Committee and their recommendations not just relating to the Rohingya crisis, but all the human rights and humanitarian problems afflicting the country.
It is a long time since Burma Campaign UK has been able to welcome something the Foreign Office has done in relation to Burma. Today we can welcome a change in tone. We should know by the end of this week, based on what Jeremy Hunt does at the UN General Assembly, whether we can welcome a positive change in policy at last.
When Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Burmese military, launched his pre-planned military offensive against Rohingya civilians last August, the majority of those he targeted were children.
A new UNICEF report, Futures in the Balance, https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/UNICEF_Child_Alert_Rohingya_Aug_2018.pdf details the devastating impact on children who fled to Bangladesh. It calls for long term planning to support refugees, as well as action by the international community and government of Burma to address the root causes.
“The refugees cannot and will not agree to return home until the discrimination and violence that they have experienced for decades are ended, until their basic rights — to citizenship, free movement, health, education, and jobs – have been established, and their property restored.”
Children have experienced trauma and loss, and are now confined in camps where conditions are harsh. It is anticipated that donors will provide only half the funding the UN says it needs to support refugees, the majority of whom are children.
With few opportunities to earn money, and no land on which to grow even a few vegetables, they are dependent on aid handouts and their own slender resources. With no end in sight to their bleak exile, despair and hopelessness are growing among the refugees says UNICEF.
Of 381,000 children who arrived in the camps since August last year, only 140,000 are in some kind of education.
The 125,000 Rohingya confined in prison camps in Burma are also losing hope says UNICEF: “You have an overwhelming impression of people suffering … Six years on, people in the camps are starting to lose hope that their lives will ever return to normal. For younger children, confinement is the only reality they have ever known.”
Aung San Suu Kyi kept in place restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State after she came to power, and these increased significantly in 2018, ahead of the military offensive.
“We need sustained access to all children who are out of reach and unprotected in northern Rakhine – and any child across the state who requires assistance” says UNICEF. 360,000 children – most of them Rohingya — are in need of humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State, according to UNICEF.
UNICEF calls on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to “Allow unrestricted access for both humanitarian and development organisations to deliver assistance and services for the most vulnerable in all areas of Rakhine state.”
The government of Bangladesh is also diplomatically called on to make the delivery of humanitarian assistance to refugees easier and to recognise their rights.
“Restoring and guaranteeing the rights of these children is an obligation for both Myanmar and Bangladesh as States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which requires them to protect the rights of child refugees and asylum seekers, and ensure they receive humanitarian assistance.
“Twelve months on, memories of those experiences remain raw among the roughly one million Rohingya refugees – including many from previous cross-border influxes – who live in cramped and primitive shelters inside the congested and often insanitary camps of Cox’s Bazar.”
There is little sign yet that the international community, which the British government claims to be leading in this crisis, is willing to take the bold and decisive steps needed to address the root causes of this crisis and hold those responsible to account, or even just to provide the aid needed for the children in the camps.
By Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK
When Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Burmese military, launched his military offensive against Rohingya civilians in August 2017, there was international outrage. One year on, the European Union (EU) has yet to implement a single practical sanction or other action to hold Min Aung Hlaing to account for his crimes.
In a submission to the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Burma Campaign UK detailed the role the EU played in enabling the crisis, amounting to complicity. By consistently backing down over the rights of the Rohingya since 2012, the EU sent a signal to the military that it considered the Rohingya expendable and would not act on abuses against them. It was a green light to Min Aung Hlaing. Despite what the United Nations describes as ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, one year on, the EU approach to the Burmese government and military remains barely changed.
The initial EU response to the crisis was a temporary suspension of invitations to senior military officers to visit the EU, but not a ban on them visiting under their own accord.
The EU then took seven months from the start the crisis to consider a range of possible measures, eventually rejecting every option except one, to place a small number of those involved in the offensive on a visa ban list, and to freeze any assets they have in the EU. Three more months passed before seven individuals were finally sanctioned. Min Aung Hlaing, who planned and oversaw the military offensive, was not included.
The British government has admitted that it is highly unlikely that the people sanctioned have any assets in the EU, and even if they did, the EU gave several months’ notice of its plans to freeze assets, giving plenty of notice for any military officers who did have assets in the EU to move them.
Nor has the EU explained why military or security personnel are being sanctioned for human rights violations against the Rohingya but not for committing human rights violations against the Kachin, Shan or other ethnic groups.
Proposals for action which were rejected by the EU include supporting a referral of Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC), supporting a UN mandated global arms embargo, and imposing targeted sanctions on military owned and controlled companies.
Instead of supporting an ICC referral, the EU asked Burma to refer itself to the court. This was obviously never going to happen and the EU knows it. This appears to be a classic EU compromise to appear to be doing something when consensus can’t be reached to do anything on an issue.
For the EU not to support a UN mandated global arms embargo, when it has its own arms embargo in place, is inexplicable. If they accept that selling arms to the Burmese military is wrong, why not encourage others countries to impose their own arms embargo and start building support for a global arms embargo?
Instead of sanctioning military owned companies, the EU decided to support European companies continuing to do business with military owned and controlled companies, thereby helping to fund the military and the human rights violations it commits.
The EU rejected calls to ban the supply of any equipment to the military. This measure would have been important as EU members have continued to supply the military with equipment despite the arms embargo. For example, Germany sold Grobb training aircraft to the military only last year.
Instead, the EU claimed it was tightening its arms embargo, but when legislation was finally published there was not much evidence for this claim. A claimed tightening of dual use equipment still leaves it open for member states to decide what constitutes dual use equipment. Countries like Germany, Italy and Austria can still decide to classify military equipment sales as not being arms, even though the equipment could still enhance the capacity of the military to wage war against the people of Burma.
Ending training programmes for the Burmese military was considered by most to be a no-brainer but even here the EU failed to act. Despite a deliberately misleading statement claiming military co-operation and training was prohibited, in fact the EU left a loophole so that it can continue, saying future training will mainly focus on democratic principles and human rights.
That’s what the British government said when it started providing training to the military. After a year-long freedom of information battle, Burma Campaign UK forced the British government to admit that on a 60 hour training course, only one hour was on human rights. Even that one hour was later dropped from the course.
For the military to still be receiving training from EU members, despite being investigated by the United Nations for the most serious human rights violations under international law, only enhances their sense of impunity and encourages them to commit further abuses.
So far, the EU is refusing to reveal which EU members are still providing training, but Germany and Austria offered training only last year. If the EU think they are doing the right thing then surely they have nothing to hide, why not reveal details of the training? However, so far the EU is keeping details of the training a secret.
Even now, in meetings and some statements, EU diplomats still avoid using the name Rohingya when they talk about Rohingya, despite denial of Rohingya identity being an integral part of the repression they face. Not using Rohingya when talking about the Rohingya is not neutral, it is taking sides. It is literally backing down to the demands of racists and nationalists. This only emboldens them further.
In May 2018 the European Commission announced €36 million for this year’s contribution for Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, which is less than they gave in 2017. This is an absolutely pathetic contribution given the UN request is for almost a billion dollars.
At the same time, the EU is spending €30 million on training the military controlled Burmese police force, which framed and arrested two Reuters journalists for exposing a massacre of Rohingya.
To date, the EU has not accepted that it made any mistakes in its approach towards Burma and the Rohingya. There has been no review of policy, no lessons have been learned, no policies changed, and certainly no effective action taken. The EU’s complicity continues.
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.