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Dispatches: Burma - "Excuse me, Mr. President..."
July 19, 2013

I got myself invited to Chatham House this week to hear Burma's President, Thein Sein.  Fresh from meetings with David Cameron and William Hague, the President spoke of "democratic transformation", an inclusive national identity respectful of all the country's religious faiths, and of his "zero tolerance" approach towards those promoting ethnic hatred and violence.  His remarks were disingenuous at best, and most likely just plain dishonest. His upbeat rhetoric bears little reality to what is happening in Burma, not least because his government has participated in serious abuses and continues to hold political prisoners, as we and others have documented.  

In April, Human Rights Watch published a report on ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity carried out against the Rohingya and other Muslims in Arakan State.  We documented men, women and children killed in attacks organized by local Arakanese political party officials, Buddhist monks and ordinary Arakanese, and often directly supported by state security forces.  In the deadliest incident, at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a massacre in Yan Thei village in Mruak-U township. The death toll included 28 children who were hacked to death, including 13 under the age of five.

In the Q&A session, I asked the president what action he would take to bring those responsible for these heinous crimes to justice. His answer was lengthy and evasive, suggesting that those responsible for any violence had already been dealt with, including through "fines", and that no further action was needed. I asked about the 1982 citizenship law, which effectively denies citizenship to Rohingya and a measure long invoked by the authorities as justification for their persecution and displacement.  He said he had "no plans" to amend the citizenship law while also suggesting that many of the Muslims in this state had come to Burma during the colonial period.

While Thein Sein was feted by UK Ministers this week as a "reformer", his record in respect of the Rohingya remains lamentable. Despite a huge body of evidence, he remains in denial about the grave human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya, unwilling to hold those responsible to account, and is refusing to reform the 1982 citizenship law that entrenches their second-class status.