Comment: Modern day apartheid exists in Burma

By Lord Alton of Liverpool

Just one year ago, on June 21st, in Westminster Hall, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament. There was an understandable sense of euphoria and a sense of 'problem solved'.

Aung San Suu Kyi now sits in the Burmese parliament rather than under house arrest, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, ceasefires have been agreed with most of the country's ethnic armed groups, space for media, civil society and political actors has increased significantly and in two years' time, Burma will have elections. Sanctions have been lifted and Burma's president, Thein Sein, is travelling the world feted by world leaders.

Isn't it all solved? Isn't it time to move on, and focus on the world's other problems?

During a recent trip to Burma, it became clear to me that the euphoria is premature, misplaced and profoundly dangerous.

Daw Suu told me that some countries are "going overboard with optimism, making the government think that it is getting everything right".

She said that we must be less euphoric and more realistic – and that nations like ours must get their response right. This should include a rather better and sympathetic understanding of the constraints still placed upon Daw Suu herself.

To explore these issues I have tabled an oral question in the Lords next Wednesday and I have secured a short debate later the same day. The focus will be on ethnic tensions and the limitations of recent developments.

As I saw during my recent visit, and from numerous reports from organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Human Rights Watch, if the challenges posed by ethnic violence are not addressed, they have the capacity to derail Burma’s evolution from military dictatorship into a plural, federal democracy.

During my visit, I met representatives of the Rohingyas and the Kachin whose home states are the two bloodiest theatres of ethnic violence.

The plight of the Muslim Rohingya people is now well-documented, most recently by Human Rights Watch in its chilling 150-page report, All You Can Do is Pray, which details mass graves from violence that swept Arakan State in June and October last year. At a meeting on May 21st, the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Burma considered that report along with the first-hand account of Rushanara Ali MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who had recently been in Arakan.

The Rohingyas are among the most persecuted and marginalised in the world, and are now facing an intensified campaign of ethnic cleansing.

I first raised their plight in the Lords on July 17th 2006, when I urged the government to co-ordinate an approach to the United Nations, with Islamic countries, to raise the plight of the Rohingya and the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps.

I have repeatedly urged the government to take action – five parliamentary interventions in 2010, twice more in 2011, again in 2012 – and on February 25th of this year, I asked the minister Baroness Warsi, whether she would "confirm that since 2012, around 5,000 Rohingya Muslim people have been murdered and that many thousands have disappeared?" I urged her to mediate a visit by the UN special rapporteur on religious liberty to the Arakan State. She and I concurred that Rohingyas are living in a system of 21st century apartheid with their citizenship rights having been formally stripped from the constitution.

Although years, months and weeks have passed, there has been very little sense of a coherent or determined response to the Rohingya from the international community.

Six weeks ago, through five further parliamentary questions, I again raised the conditions in the camps – which are the perfect breeding ground for nurturing a generation of alienated and hostile Jihadists – and asked about the core issue, the question of the Rohingya claim to citizenship.

The government of Burma needs to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, which stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship, rendering them stateless, and introduce a new citizenship law in line with international norms.

On Wednesday, I will be pressing our government to encourage the establishment of two independent inquiries: one, through the UN to investigate the violence in Arakan State last year and assess whether crimes against humanity have been committed; and another, perhaps consisting of independent academics and other experts to assess the historical basis for the Rohingyas’ claims, in order to fully and conclusively address claims by the government of Burma and many in Burmese society that the Rohingyas are, as they put it, illegal Bengali immigrants.

Years of misinformation about the Rohingyas in Burma need to be countered with a full, comprehensive and independent assessment of the history and the facts, if the suffering of the Rohingyas is ever to end.

Similarly, as part of a serious peace process, Thein Sein's government must end the Burma Army's offensive against the Kachin people. Two years ago the military launched a new campaign against the Kachin, ending a 17-year ceasefire. In the past two years, over 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced, at least 200 villages burned down and 66 churches destroyed. Grave human rights violations continue to be perpetrated, including rape, torture and killings.

A recent report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide detailed the story of one Kachin who had been jailed for a year. During his interrogation, he was hung upside down for a day and a night, beaten severely, mutilated with hot knives and when a grenade was shoved in his mouth, his torturers threatening to pull the pin. A Kachin woman whose husband is in jail told how he had been forced to engage in sex with other men and to kneel on sharp stones with his hands outstretched in the form of a crucifixion.

If Burma is really on the path of change, the government must end these abuses, and tackle the culture of impunity that has existed for so long. In addition to ethnic violence, our attitude to Burma must be conditioned by progress made in the brave attempts to secure democracy. So far, the changes on the ground primarily amount to a change of atmosphere rather than a change of system.

Of course it is necessary to begin by changing the atmosphere, but we should all remember that this is just the beginning. Many political prisoners remain in prison and hundreds more have been arrested in the past year – during my visit, I stood outside the notorious Insein prison where several hundred long-term political prisoners still remain behind bars.

There is a need for significant legislative, institutional and constitutional change if democracy is to be secured. Burma must repeal unjust and repressive laws that can be used to arbitrarily arrest and detain political or ethnic activists, and hold a nationwide consultation to amend the constitution, particularly regarding consideration of the introduction of a federal system providing the ethnic nationalities with equal rights and autonomy, and removing the clauses which currently prohibit Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from being a candidate for the presidency.

I made three earlier visits to Burma – the first 15 years ago. They were made illegally to the Karen State. Now I could legally visit and meet ethnic leaders and democracy activists; it is a small and welcomed harbinger of change. But, we would be fools to believe that deep-seated challenges – like those I have described – have been resolved, or even addressed, and that the international community's caravan can now safely move on.

As the archbishop of Rangoon, Charles Bo, told me, "our country could all too easily descend into a vicious cycle of hatred, violence and turmoil"; and he is right that, to avoid this, many will have to "unclench their fists and work together to rebuild not only the physical structures of our country, but the hearts and minds of our people".

The international community has a responsibility to help in that effort by offering encouragement where merited, expertise where desired, aid where needed and pressure where justified. The new era of engagement with Burma's government must not be uncritical, unthinking or unconditional.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent cross-bench member of the House of Lords. For 18 years, David Alton was a member of the House of Commons and when he stood down, in 1997, he was appointed to the House of Lords as an independent crossbench peer. He is professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University; is chairman of the All Party Group on North Korea; honorary president of the charity Karen Aid and one of the founders of the human rights group the Jubilee Campaign.

For details of his visit to Burma go to

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