For Many, Burma’s Change Of Guard Means Little

Burma’s transformation from international pariah to political success story is being called into question by widespread and ongoing human rights abuses that Western interests increasingly refuse to acknowledge, humanitarian advocates claim.

Burma Campaign UK director Mark Farmaner said that a recent British Foreign Office quarterly report on the human rights situation in the country willfully neglects the severity of such abuses, and the allegation comes amid mounting evidence presented by Fortify Rights of the Burma government pursuing discriminatory policies against the Rohingya minority.

“For the current British government, human rights in all countries have become less of a priority. In relation to Burma, a combination of the reforms that have taken place, and the change in tone from both the Burmese government and Aung San Suu Kyi, have given the British government the cover they need to argue Burma isn’t much different from many others countries, so why treat them differently?” he said. “But Burma is different, human rights abuses are worse than in most countries in the world, which is why they have to downplay them.”

Mr Farmaner said the BFO’s report is driven by financial and diplomatic motives, and that the BFO softened its report to bolster trade ties with the rapidly liberalizing nation.

“They are trying to move closer to the Burmese government in order to win business contracts, and so don’t want to upset the government. Another reason is that if they were honest about the scale of on-going human rights abuses it would raise more questions about whether their current policy of befriending Thein Sein’s regime is effective,” he said.

The Burma Campaign UK statement also highlights what it says are shortfalls in the BFO’s report, including a failure to mention recent politically related arrests and violation of international laws.

Abuse allegations against the Burma government have been accompanied by an appeal released this week to the United Nations Human Rights Council signed by 45 civil society organizations, highlighting problems with inter-communal violence, restrictive legislation, and problems with enforcing the rule of law.

Mr Farmaner said the latest BFO report, while a departure from the critical voice used by the BFO several years ago, is part and parcel of the government’s foreign policy.

“These reports have always been cautious, but until a couple of years ago were generally balanced. They started to change when policy changed,” he said. “This latest report in our view crossed a line by not only ignoring and downplaying many human rights abuses, but also presenting misleading and inaccurate information, and uncritically quoting the Burmese government on matters where the action doesn’t match rhetoric.”

The Burma Campaign UK allegations follow on a report released last month by Fortify Rights showing Burma government documents sanctioning discriminatory practices against the Rohingya, including restrictive two-child limits per family, curtailed travel freedoms, religious regulations, and other policies that together constitute “crimes against humanity.”

Such allegations are strongly rejected by the Burmese government, which refers to the Rohingya population as “Bengalis.” In response to Fortify Right’s findings, Burma presidential spokesman U Ye Htut told The Myanmar Times that the government doesn’t acknowledge “Bengali lobby groups.”

Saw Greh Moo, program officer for the Salween Institute, said that displaced Rohingya are kept in deplorable conditions, and that the absence of rule of law has inflamed ethnic strife.

“The conditions of the IDP camps in Rakhine State where Rohingya refugees are being kept currently are inconceivable and horrible. It’s nothing different from a mass holding camp for prisoners. This problem needs to be immediately addressed,” he said. “People who instigated violence and tried to promote racism were not being fully and strongly punished to deter their behaviors and prevent them from doing what they did.”

The recent halting of Doctors Without Borders activities in Rakhine State by the Burma government drew widespread condemnation from human rights organizations and observers who say the vulnerable Rohingya population will be left dangerously undeserved.

Anti-Rohingya sentiment also extends to the Burmese media. Widespread Burmese media characterizations of Rohingya as “Bengalis” and use of the epithet “kalar” contribute to a culture of discrimination, Fortify Rights reported.

A recent editorial in Eleven Myanmar, written by its senior editor, Zayar Nanda, speculates that global attention on the Rohingya is part of a ruse to give citizenship to “Bengalis” and malign Burmese Buddhists.

Failure to use the word Rohingya, Mr Farmaner noted, also applies to the BFO’s reporting, which avoids using the ethnic group’s preferred nomenclature.

“We can see the consequences of Western nations being so weak on Rohingya issues in the expulsion of MSF [Doctors Without Borders] from Rakhine State,” he said. “When the British government and EU are so fearful of upsetting Thein Sein that they even start avoiding using the word Rohingya, it is no surprise that he has the confidence to expel MSF.”

Exacerbating this problem is the government’s unwillingness to afford the Rohingya even basic legal protections, and this has pushed them to the margins of society, Saw Greh Moo said.

“A lack of official recognition is what makes them vulnerable to systematic abuses and mistreatment at the hands of those who are bent on destroying them,” he said. “A lack of citizenship and government policies to integrate them into the mainstream Burmese society may have cast Rohingya as foreigners and outsiders in the eyes of the local people.”

Other social problems reach across the country, Saw Greh Moo said, and for many of the nation’s ethnic minorities abuses remain endemic.

“Land and human rights activists are still being regularly arrested and prosecuted for exercising their basic rights,” he said. “The generals are still pretty much in control of the country’s future because they still dominate the government ministries and the army is still very independent and influential.”

For Mr Farmaner, the country’s widely lauded reform process leaves much to be desired.

“On the positive side there has been an increase in civil liberties, mainly for people in central Burma, but this has to be balanced against the fact that human rights abuses which violate international law have increased,” he said. “A government genuinely committed to reform wouldn’t be systematically violating international law.

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