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Burma and Bangladesh Must Answer Cries for Help

By Burma Partnership  •  June 18, 2012

Sectarian violence that erupted a week ago in Arakan State has continued over the last week leading to the displacement of over 30, 000 people in need of shelter, medical assistance and food. In light of the serious humanitarian crisis that faces Rakhine and Rohingya people, international and Bangkok based human rights activists released a statement calling for the international community, including diplomatic missions in Burma and the United Nations, to send independent monitors to assess the situation and take appropriate steps to address any worsening of the situation.

The Asian Human Rights Commission also sent an open letter to Burma and Bangladesh calling on both governments to take a cooperative and humanitarian approach to the violence and to enable the provision of adequate food and health services to the affected populations.

However, despite Vijay Nambiar, the UN’s special envoy, visit to Arakan State, no humanitarian supplies have reached the victims of the violence and Bangladesh has been turning away people fleeing Arakan State, announcing that it will not allow any refugees from Burma on its territory.

While June 20 this week marks World Refugee Day, dedicated to raise awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world, Bangladesh will keep its doors closed to people who need immediate safety and medical assistance. According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Bangladeshi guards have already turned back 16 boats carrying more than 660 Rohingyas, most of them women and children.

However, international calls are growing. The UN Refugee Agency called on Bangladesh to keep its border open, and the US Department of State urged Bangladesh to respect international obligations under the refugee convention. “By closing its border when violence is out of control, Bangladesh is putting lives at grave risk,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Programme Director at Human Rights Watch.

Asked about the situation in Arakan State at a press conference in Geneva Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said “The most important lesson is the need for rule of law.” One can only agree with her. It seems like what Burma needs to avoid a recurrence of communal violence is precise laws on citizenship, as well as an independent judiciary and uncorrupted security forces.

For the moment, the Government has declared a state of emergency in Arakan State. However, as noted by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, “the authorities should lift the state of emergency as soon as order is restored.” The EU says it is satisfied with the authorities’ “measured” handling of the situation in Arakan State, yet a largely unasked question is: to what extent has violence been enabled, if not encouraged, by people in positions of authority and why emergency humanitarian aid delivery has not been initiated by Burma government?

To conclude, Zarganar summarizes perfectly on whose shoulders responsibilities lie:  “So the Burmese government needs to exercise its responsibility to protect the rights of all those in Burma, whatever their religion or ethnicity. We need legal action to be taken against those who have committed murder and violence and damaged property. The government must restore the rule of law and end corruption and immigration abuse, but not while trampling on human rights like before. And we Burmese must use freedom of expression to promote peace, not conflict.”

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