Burma: Human Rights Situation Underscores Need for Careful, Go-Slow Approach

As the persecution and human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Burma continue, the U.S., ASEAN, and other stakeholders need to examine their engagement with the Burmese military regime with this problem foremost in their minds.

Rohingya Muslims are one of the most oppressed ethnic minorities in the world. Since 1982, the Burmese government has systematically persecuted its 800,000 Rohingyas by stripping them of citizenship, denying them free travel, restricting their access to land, and forcing them work for the military.

The Bangladeshi government says that 300,000 Rohingyas live in Bangladesh today after mass exodus from Burma. The majority remains unrecognized and live in refugee-like conditions. The Bangladeshi government is reluctant to receive more. On August 7, the U.S. State Department expressed its deep concern with the Bangladeshi government’s intent to shut down organizations providing aid to Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

The recent violence in June was the result of clashes between Rohingyas and Arakan Buddhists in Rakhin State. Burmese security forces failed to secure the region and instead “committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims,” according to Human Rights Watch. At least 79 people in Rakhin were killed and 90,000 Rohingyas displaced. The Burmese government took no action to protect the Rohingyas, with the local security forces reportedly killing and beating Rohingyas.

Burmese President Thein Sein has advocated the expulsion of all Rohingyas as the only solution to ending the region’s violence. This is irresponsible and unfitting for a country now seeking ever more extensive engagement with the U.S.

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Relocation and/or expulsion undermines the U.S.’s recent opening toward Burma. As a human rights champion, the U.S. should underscore Burmese human rights and calibrate the country’s opening to progress. Currently, the Obama Administration appears too optimistic regarding Burmese reform and hasty in the lifting of economic sanctions.

The April 1 by-election gave only 43 seats out of 664 to the opposition party, and hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed. Both ASEAN and the U.S. can do better in ensuring that they pick up the pace before more minorities suffer.

ASEAN will take up the issue of adopting a human rights declaration at its summit in November. Whether international human rights standards are applicable in Asia has long been contentious. Recently, the organization shied away from condemning human rights violations in Burma’s Rakhin State. However, an ASEAN-led effort to protect the people of Rakhin can provide a path to the institutionalization of a human rights convention.

Walter Lohman, Heritage’s director of Asian Studies Center, has stated that the U.S. should “establish concrete, identifiable benchmarks” to make sure the Burmese reform is irreversible. The U.S. should insist that Burma’s reforms include its minorities, embrace international human rights standards, and end its ethnocentric agenda. The current “ethnic cleansing” of Burma should not be tolerable to the international community.

Burma will host the 2014 ASEAN meetings and hold a general election in 2015. If ASEAN adopts a human rights declaration this year, it should hold the Burmese accountable for its conduct against Rohingyas and other minority groups. The U.S. should make sure that it does not “over-reward” Burma for marginal improvements and spend all its leverage so early in the process that it has nothing left to reward genuine systematic reform.

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