The Plight of Burma’s Rohingya


Speech in the House of Lords

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

 

Two months ago, the Rakhine advisory commission established by Aung San Suu Kyi, and chaired by the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, published a report that offered a way out of this morass. However, within hours of its publication, a small militant group attacked police posts, precipitating a grossly disproportionate response by the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, leading to this current crisis.

 

In condemning the initial attacks, we should concur with the United Nations and be equally clear that the Burmese army’s response to those attacks amounts to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. As one journalist put it, the Burmese army,

 

“wants to destroy an ethnicity, not end an insurgency”.

 

When more than 600,000 Rohingya—over half the population—have fled to Bangladesh, and harrowing accounts of the most extreme barbaric human rights violations are consistently repeated by survivors, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion. Of course, this is not by any means the first violence endured by the Rohingya: they have faced severe persecution for decades and, since 2006, I have repeatedly raised it in your Lordships’ House.

 

In 2013, I cited the Human Rights Watch report that stated,

 

“what is happening to the Rohingya people”,

 

is, in its words, “genocide”.

 

In 2015, I told your Lordships that,

 

“one in five Rohingya has now fled since 2011”.—[Official Report, 18/6/15; col. 1240.]

 

A year ago, the former President of East Timor, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta, together with the human rights activist, Benedict Rogers, wrote:

 

“A human tragedy approaching ethnic cleansing is unfolding in Burma, and the world is chillingly silent … If we fail to act, Rohingyas may starve to death if they aren’t killed by bullets first”.

 

As the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, reminded us, so often we say “never again”, only to watch it happen all over again, from Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia, Darfur to the genocide—it was named as such by the House of Commons—of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.

 

I hope that the noble Lord will tell us what action Her Majesty’s Government are taking now to address the immediate humanitarian crisis, described by the UN Secretary-General as “catastrophic”, to address impunity and to gain urgent unhindered access for international aid organisations and human rights monitors. Does he agree that although much international criticism has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi—undoubtedly, she should have done more—she does not control the army? The person with the power to order the troops to stop the carnage is the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. If the violence is to end, the decision to immediately cease their operations in Rakhine state lies squarely with him. Have Her Majesty’s Government told General Min that, in the light of all the evidence available, we will make a referral to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity to be laid against him and those who have perpetrated these crimes?

 

What are we doing to promote the citizenship rights of Rohingyas and to facilitate their safe return to their villages in due course to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods, and to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and of course in due course to promote a reconciliation process? Will we work for a global arms embargo of the kind that the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, mentioned? Will we work at the Security Council for targeted sanctions on military-owned enterprises? On what basis will we introduce a resolution before the United Nations Security Council to address this crisis?

 

Lastly, I urge the Minister to hold regular meetings with groups in London with expertise in Burma—most particularly Burma Campaign UK, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as representatives of the exiled Rohingya community—to discuss the crisis and to encourage clear statements about the rights of minorities from Daw Suu, especially during the visit of Pope Francis when he visits Burma next month.

 

Having travelled to Burma four years ago and met Daw Suu—on the day after I visited a village where Muslims had been driven out during an arson attack—and having addressed civil society activists in Rangoon and hosted in this place Burma’s courageous Cardinal Bo, an outspoken voice for the Rohingyas and other minorities, I had hoped that Burma was on a path of progress. Yet I cannot ignore the truth that the country now faces the worst human rights crisis in many years, not only for the Rohingyas but for the Kachin, Shan and others. In responding to this emergency, we must not neglect Burma’s other tragedies that continue to unfold. But this catastrophe requires specific and urgent action. Like all other noble Lords, I look forward to the Minister’s response.