An all too familiar humanitarian crisis in Burma

The political tide has turned in Burma. For the first time in decades, under the guidance of the Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, democratic change is on the horizon. Trade routes and diplomatic channels have become active for the first time in years as optimism surged around the country and around the world. If anyone deserved change it was the people of Burma who have suffered under a military dictatorship for so many years.

However, in the last few months there has been widespread violence between the minority Muslim ethnic group the Rohingyas and the Arakan Buddhist majority. The NGO Human Rights Watch, as well as all media reports, state that the Rohingyas have suffered the brunt of it. Some have even said that genocidal acts have been committed following a plan of state sponsored ethnic cleansing (PressTV). Throughout the summer Rohingya have been killed, arbitrarily detained, their homes looted and villages burnt. In the most recent episode of fighting, in the last month, around 22,000 people, mainly Rohingya, have been displaced and almost 5,000 homes have been destroyed. Satellite images show the almost total destruction of one Rohingya area in Rakhine state; which revealed villages turned into ash and emptied of human life. As a result thousands are homeless and stateless.

The in-fighting dates back decades and has its roots in disputes over origin. Many Buddhist Arakan perceive the Rohingya to be foreign intruders from Bangladesh, despite the fact that most have been settled in the region for generations. It is an all too familiar tale and bears a stark resemblance to the history of ethnic conflict in many countries, most notably Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamils were embroiled in a civil war for over thirty years with the Sinhala Buddhist elite. Currently the violence in Burma has not witnessed the extremity of death and displacement that was seen in Sri Lanka, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of a future of perpetual misery for the Rohingya. In both Sri Lanka and Burma the political establishment of the majority failed to stop the violence. The Burmese government have not openly waged a war, but they have not done anything to protect the Rohingya and the President Thein Sein has openly expressed his view that the Rohingya do not belong in the country. It is also claimed that the military have been directly involved in the violence.The trouble in Burma is another example of how a volatile Buddhist nationalism can lead to human devastation. Like the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Rohingya are also discriminated by law and are considered immigrants and second class citizens.

What we can be sure of is that it will happen again – If the government does not provide security to the Rohingya the violence will continue. This is a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen, if it has not begun already. Without help from the government, many displaced Rohingya are undertaking perilous journeys by sea to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh or Thailand but many are simply sent back. External aid is also allegedly being confiscated and sent back by the military who encircle the areas that have seen most of the violence. The NGO Medecins Sans Frontiers say they have been stopped from treating the injured in Rohingya areas.

In some ways the situation is simple – protect the Rohingya and open up channels of communication between the government and local people to find a solution. The worry is that the Government will not take such measures to control the anarchy and prevent further conflict. Worse still, the reality might be that the Government have no intention to aid the Rohingya at all. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for not using her moral clout to condemn the violence.

The international community has a vital role to play. If the opening up of trade and commerce into Burma can be used as a tool to make the Government take action over the violence, it must be done. The big multinational companies that have taken steps to trade with Burma and who plan to profit from democratic change should take note of the violence. In previous years the West did not trade with Burma because of its human rights abuses, if this violence continues the West should repeat similar sanctions. The political establishment in the West, as well as the UN, also have a responsibility to lean on businesses and to take the lead in condemning the violence. In fact, at this precise moment in time, when Burma is opening up and is looking towards the West, the West has a greater chance of influencing the Burmese Government that at any other time. But sadly so far little has been done. It is far simpler to ignore what is happening both politically and financially for the West. Strategically Burma is a valuable ally to have because it is flanked by India and China. For Britain, it’s old colonial past could also benefit trading relations. But to dismiss the violence would be a tragedy.

A success story Burma may well turn out to be, but the recent ethnic violence in the country is a sad reminder of how far the country has yet to come. Action to prevent this escalating further must be taken soon to stop Burma returning to the bloody country it formerly was. Democracy has turned the country upside down but it must not blind International governments and businesses. Democratic change takes a long time, done too quickly can lead to disaster. Like has happened in so many countries, democracy often leads to a dangerous nationalism which preys on minorities. The International community has a duty to help peaceful change but it also has a duty to the human rights of all the citizens of Burma.