Fresh out of his re-election campaign, Barack Obama will be the first US President to visit Burma when he embarks on his tour of South East Asia on the 17 November. His visit to the country controlled by the military junta for decades until March 2011 is a considerable endorsement of a democratic process kicked off by President Thein Sein over a year ago. So far, this process has made no indication yet of bringing about a lasting change in the treatment of Burma’s minorities, especially the predominantly Muslim Rohingya. Named by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, standing at the ‘brink of extermination’ (1), for the 800,000 Rohingyas in Burma this visit is a decisive moment.

Therein lies both the opportunity and the danger. Obama has the chance to use his visit to convey the urgency and necessity of a radical overhaul of Burma’s treatment of its minorities; not just a short-term fix for the recent escalation of violence between the Rohingya and the Rahkine, a Buddhist minority in Burma, in western Burma’s Arakan province. It is in his power to insist that any democratic process has to be wholly inclusive. And that any international support for President Thein Sein’s new government should come with strict conditions attached. Yet so far, the US’s and the international community’s responses are coming dangerously close to normalising relations too quickly, sacrificing human rights for better economic relations and political stability. In the spirit of Hilary Clinton’s policy of meeting “action with action” , the US dropped a number of sanctions in July 2012 at the height of violence in Arakan province, when the international community should have exerted deliberately more pressure on Thein Sein to end the violence and protect both minority groups.

The violence that erupted in June between the Rohingya and Rahkine in the north of Arakan province highlights the urgency of the situation. Although atrocities were committed on both sides, and the state security forces often deliberately failed to protect both, it was the Rohingya that suffered most from subsequent brutal state abuses. The State of Emergency declared by President Thein Sein on 10 June suspended any feeble civil rights the Rohingya could still hope to claim, and gave way to systematic and ruthless sweeps conducted by state security forces in the predominantly Muslim townships of northern Arakan state, allegedly in search of the perpetrators of the violence. A recent Human Rights Watch report records these forces entering villages, looting, opening fire on Rohingya and rounding up boys and men to be taken away and held indefinitely. More than 100,000 Burmese, mostly Rohingya, have been displaced; more than 80 have been killed (a figure issued by the Burmese government); 4,600 houses have been burnt . A Channel 4 News correspondent described the previous Muslim quarter of the Arakan capital Sittwe looking like the “aftermath of a natural disaster, except human beings did this” .

This violence should act as a stark reminder of the much larger tragedy of the long-standing oppression of Burmese minorities by the state. Many of the 135 official ‘national races’ such as the Chin, Karen and Karenni suffer sexual violence, discrimination, forced labour, land confiscation, forced displacement and torture, largely by the Burmese army. Yet those that suffer most are the Rohingya who had their citizenship revoked in 1982 and have since been stateless, not accepted as Burmese both by the fiercely nationalist-Buddhist government and by many in society. In addition to the discrimination suffered by many other minority groups, the Rohingya are restricted in almost every sphere of life, from access to health care and education to employment, marriage, freedom of movement and building or renovation of mosques. Extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labour, land confiscation and extortion are commonplace and are usually unreported. Swathes of Rohingya have fled and continue to flee on foot or by boat to neighbouring Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, where appalling conditions, continued abuses or rejection await them. As one refugee put it to journalist and human rights activist Benedict Rogers, they are the “living dead”(2) .

With these conditions continuing, there is a risk of rising extremism amongst the Rohingya. The around 20,000 Rohingya refugees live in UNHCR camps across the border in Bangladesh and estimated 100,000 living outside these camps were a fertile ground for Islamist militant groups . The Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) that formed in the 1980s and became the most militant faction among the Rohingyas in Bangladesh was engaged in little or no fighting in Burma itself, however there are allegations of links between them and Islamist organisations. According to Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist, in the 1990s groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizb-e-Islami recruited Rohingyas, and Afghan instructors were reported to have been seen in some of the RSO camps along the Bangladesh-Burma border . There are no RSO camps on the Burmese side of the border, and none such activity has been reported in recent years. However the Burmese government has frequently used the charge of extremism as anti-Rohingya propaganda. To prevent such propaganda from becoming reality, and from such discourse detracting from the plight of the majority of the Rohingya, the situation has to change.

The reforms enacted by President Thein Sein so far, such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and of several hundreds of other political prisoner from jail, have been a step in the right direction. However, both the legal and the societal attitudes towards the Rohingya have to fundamentally change in order for them and other minorities to be included in the nation-building process. Repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law and granting them basic rights is the bare minimum. Burma as a whole, and all Burmese, has to end racism and discrimination towards minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi’s four month-long silence about the atrocious violence that took place this year is a tragic reflection of the widespread discriminatory Burmese attitude towards the Rohingya. As recent as July 2012 did President Thein Sein suggest the UNHCR resettle Burma’s entire Rohingya population, saying “we will send them away if any third country would accept them. This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue.” Such a proposal is nothing short of ethnic cleansing, which is what organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide have called it. If US support of Thein Sein is meant to advance any meaningful, inclusive democratic process, it has to include pressure from Obama to alter Burma’s treatment of its minorities. Legislation has not only to change, but to be enforced, protected and guaranteed for all Burmese.

By Gioia Forster

1. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ‘Burma: Visit to the Bangladesh-Burma Border’, 26-31 August 2008, found in Benedict Rogers. Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’, pg. 127

2. Benedict Rogers, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, pg. 137