The current communal violence and ongoing state-sponsored systematic discrimination against the Rohingya minority in Burma requires a strong response by the international community and by democracy and human rights activists worldwide.

For decades, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority primarily based in Arakan State in Burma, have faced systematic discrimination at the hands of the state and have also been victims of communal violence involving members of the majority Buddhist Rakhine. The Rohingya have effectively been declared stateless, in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the 1982 Citizenship Act which removed their citizenship granted in 1948, even though they have lived in Burma for generations.

President Thein Sein’s suggestion to the UNHCR last week, that it should take responsibility for the entire Rohingya population of almost a million until they can be resettled to third countries, is appalling and may amount to a policy of ethnic cleansing.

For decades, the Rohingya have faced severe restrictions, harassment and intimidation. Rohingya activists have been routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, and even extrajudicial killings.  Since a state of emergency was declared in June 2012, targeted attacks by the security forces against the Rohingya have increased and anti-Muslim communal violence has continued unchecked.

According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Rohingya, mostly men and boys, have been arbitrarily arrested, detained and ill-treated by the security forces. Amnesty has also described other human rights abuses, including rape, destruction of property, and unlawful killings of the Rohingya and Rakhine Muslims perpetrated by security forces and Rakhine Buddhists.  Hundreds are thought to have died in the recent violence. In addition, UN agencies say that at least 90,000 people have been displaced and are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

Quilliam calls on the international community to demand that the Government of Burma address the structural causes of this crisis by immediately repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law that removed basic rights from the Rohingya and other minorities, as well as by promoting tolerance and a respect for minority rights. Quilliam further calls on the international community, and democracy and human rights activists worldwide, to maintain pressure on the Burmese government to halt its oppression of the Rohingya, address communal violence and ensure access for humanitarian relief agencies.

As well as these political and humanitarian concerns, Quilliam also highlights a strategic risk that the Rohingya people and their cause could be exploited by extreme Islamists and nationalists to justify a violent response that would only escalate the crisis, and nosedive any public sympathy for their plight. It is therefore imperative that discourse around this issue remains firmly one of human rights, and that the plight of the Rohingya is not recast by vested interests as another page in an imagined “global war against Islam.”

Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher at Quilliam, comments,

“We call on the UK, US & EU governments to urgently press the Government of Burma to end all systematic discrimination and human rights violations against the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, the perpetrators of communal violence must be held accountable and swift steps must be taken to resolve the conflict justly.”