April 22, 2013

V. The Response from Naypyidaw

While the central government’s rhetoric on the situation in Arakan State has evolved and become more nuanced since the October violence, its overall response to the situation remains woefully inadequate.

The central government has made repeated conciliatory gestures to foreign diplomats and representatives of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, chaperoning several visits to Arakan State for envoys from the US, UK, Australia, Turkey and other countries, as well as UN and international NGO officials. The government also permitted visits by the media. Rohingya displaced persons have also been gradually receiving more aid, though still far short of adequate – in part because of government approvals and action in response to demands from humanitarian agencies for greater access and support.

However, members of the Arakanese community and state security forces continue to commit violence against Rohingya throughout the state. The government’s humanitarian response in many areas remains dismal, giving rise to what OCHA has referred to as a “potentially devastating” effect on displaced Rohingya.[226]

Early on in the crisis, on July 12, 2012, President Thein Sein said that the “only solution” to the situation in Arakan State was to send “illegal” Rohingya to “third countries” or to refugee camps overseen by UNHCR. He said:

We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingyas who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities and we cannot accept them here. … The solution to this problem is that they can be settled in refugee camps managed by UNHCR, and UNHCR provides [sic] for them. If there are countries that would accept them, they could be sent there.[227] 

The statement was quickly rejected by UNHCR, which responded, “Resettlement under the UHNCR program is only for recognized refugees. And people cannot be refugees in their own country. So it is not logical to talk about resettlement for people who are in their own country.”[228]

Instead of provoking outrage in Burma, the remarks generated considerable popular support for Thein Sein. [229] The response reflected the widespread anti-Rohingya views of many Burmese that extends far beyond the Arakanese community, who themselves have often been at odds with the Burman-dominated government. Many Burmese continue to invoke the president’s call for expatriation of Rohingya as a political solution to the Rohingya “problem.”

In September 2011, the government established the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC).[230] President Thein Sein appointed the 15 members of the commission, including chairman Win Mra and Vice-Chairman Kyaw Tint Swe.[231] From June 27 to July 1, Win Mra, an ethnic Arakanese, led a three-member commission team to Arakan State to assess the situation. On July 11, the commission provided its findings to the government, reportedly finding that no government abuses had occurred and that all humanitarian needs in Arakan State were being met.[232]

Following this, the president’s office publicly denied the severity of the violence and allegations of abuse in Arakan State. An August 21 press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the situation was neither a conflict between two religious groups nor a humanitarian issue, but rather “was only the violence [sic] conflict between two communities within a state of Myanmar following a criminal act.” The ministry blamed foreign media and organizations for issuing statements “based on false and fabricated news,” and denied that sectarian issues had any bearing on the situation, stating:

The incidents ... are sectarian conflicts which are purely internal affairs of a sovereign state. They are not relating to any kind of religious persecution or religious discrimination. Therefore, we will not accept any attempt to politically regionalize or internationalize this conflict as a religious issue. Such attempt will not contribute to finding solutions to the problem, but will only complicate the issue further.[233]

Following the second major outbreak of violence and abuse in late October, the president’s office asserted that “riots erupted ... unexpectedly.” Thein Sein’s press release on October 25 claimed implausibly low casualties – 12 deaths and 50 wounded from the October violence. The press release stated that “persons and organizations” were responsible for “conducting manipulation in the incidents ... behind the scene,” and they “will be exposed and legal actions will be taken against them.”[234] The government has made no further statements about the “persons and organizations” responsible.

In a November 16 letter to the UN secretary-general, Thein Sein further softened his public rhetoric noting that “once emotions subside on all sides” his government was prepared to “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship ... [to] issues of birth registration, work permits and permits for movement across the country for all, in line with a uniform national practice across the country ensuring that they are in keeping with accepted international norms.”[235] This was reiterated in a statement released on November 18, prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma, asserting the government would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.”[236]

Following these statements, and Obama’s historic visit, the first to Burma by a sitting US president, the Burmese government not only failed to meet the commitments concerning Arakan State made to Obama, but its rhetoric made a sharp reversal. A December 6 press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs implicitly denies the existence of the Rohingya by referring to them as “so-called ‘Rohingyas’” and “Bengalis,” and denies any government wrongdoing against the Rohingya:

The Ministry reaffirmed that the government security forces and local authorities have never [been] involved in the communal violence or racial and religious discrimination in Rakhine [Arakan] State as accused by some media and organizations. The Head of State and other responsible officials have also declared this to the world at the UN General Assembly, ASEAN Summit and the Non-Aligned Summit.[237]

Moreover, in a parliamentary session on February 21, 2013, Burma’s deputy immigration and population minister, Kyaw Kyaw Win, denied the existence of the Rohingya.[238] Such denials imply the Rohingya are not entitled to protections and rights available to other Burmese minority communities and they leave them vulnerable to further abuse.

Even taking Thein Sein at his word regarding the commitments he made prior to Obama’s visit, the timeline and manner in which the government intends to pursue solutions to the crisis remain unclear. In the meantime, the abuses and discrimination faced by the Rohingya, including unequal citizenship status, appear no closer to being resolved.

[226] UNOCHA, Humanitarian Bulletin: Myanmar, February 2013, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Myanmar%20Humanitarian%20Bulletin%2C%20Issue%20February%202013.pdf (accessed April 10, 2013), p.1.

[227] “Call to Put Rohingya in Refugee Camps,” Radio Free Asia, July 12, 2012, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/rohingya-07122012185242.html (accessed February 2, 2013).

[228] Saw Yan Naing, “UNHCR Rejects Rohingya Resettlement Suggestion,” The Irrawaddy, July 13, 2012, http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/9076 (accessed December 9, 2012).

[229] Human Rights Watch interviews in Arakan State, Rangoon Region, and Mandalay Region, September-November 2012.

[230] The MNHRC was created under Government Notification 34/2011. "Formation of Myanmar National Human Rights Commission," New Light of Myanmar, September 6, 2011, http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs11/NLM2011-09-06.pdf (accessed April 10, 2013).

[231] Regarding independence from the government, according to the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), executive instruments such as decrees and orders do not comply with the Paris Principles, which are minimum standards relating to the status and functioning of NHRIs for the protection and promotion of human rights. See International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs Sub-Committee on Accreditation, general observations, Geneva, 2009, para. 1.1., www.ihrc.ie/download/pdf/genera_observations_sca.pdf(accessed July 14, 2012); See also, OHCHR, National Human Rights Institutions: History, Principles, Roles, and Responsibilities, Professional Training Series No. 4 (United Nations: New York and Geneva, 2010), p. 32, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/PTS-4Rev1-NHRI_en.pdf (accessed April 8, 2013).

[232] Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, “Statement No. (4/2012) of Myanmar National Human Rights Commission concerning incidents in Rakhine State in June 2012,” New Light of Myanmar, July 11, 2012, http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs13/NLM2012-07-11.pdf (accessed April 10, 2013).

[233] “The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” press release, August 21, 2012, http://www.president-office.gov.mm/en/issues/foreign-policy/id-568 (accessed April 10, 2013).

[234] “Statement with Regard to Conflict in Rakhine State,” Republic of the Union of Myanmar, President Office, Statement no. 1/2012, October 25, 2012, http://www.mofa.gov.mm/news/2012/Sept_Oct2012/President%20Office%20Statemen%20on%20Conflict%20in%20Rakhine%20State_25-10-2012.pdf (accessed March 6, 2013).

[235] “Secretary-General Outlines Letter Received From President of Myanmar Pledging to Deal with Perpetrators of ‘Senseless Violence,’” UN Department of Public Information, news release, SG/SM/14648, November 16, 2012, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2012/sgsm14648.doc.htm (accessed December 9, 2012).

[236] “The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” Information Team, Press Release No. 2/2012, November 18, 2012, http://www.president-office.gov.mm/en (accessed December 9, 2012).

[237] “The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Release,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, press release, December 6, 2012, http://www.president-office.gov.mm/en/issues/foreign-policy/id-1202 (accessed March 7, 2013).

[238] David Stout, “Deputy minister denies existence of Rohingya during parliamentary session,” Democratic Voice of Burma, February 21, 2013, www.dvb.no/news/deputy-minister-denies-existence-of-rohingya-in-parliament/26531 (accessed February 28, 2013).