Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Burma's Challenge: Democracy, Human Rights, Peace, and the Plight of the Rohingya

Today, the U.S. State Department has released a testimony on Burma. It was given by Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Washington, DC.

On the question of appalling persecution faced by the Rohingya community, Mr. Russel said:
We remain deeply concerned about the discriminatory conditions facing members of religious and ethnic minorities, especially continued persecution of the Rohingya population in Rakhine State. We have reiterated that the government has a responsibility to continue to ensure that humanitarian organizations have unfettered access to all vulnerable communities in areas affected by outbreaks of violence; internally displaced persons can return to their places of origin in a safe and voluntary manner; and there is a nondiscriminatory, transparent, and voluntary path for citizenship for stateless persons, including members of the Rohingya population, that does not compel them to self-identify against their will.
We have raised our concerns about the passage of the four “race and religion” laws that are not consistent with the government’s commitment to the protection of human rights. We have made clear that the international community is troubled by the rise of divisive religious hate speech, which along with these new laws threaten to undermine the government’s own efforts to promote tolerance, diversity, and national unity. We are actively engaged in ensuring that policymakers in Burma fully grasp the potential for these developments to undermine their credibility, the reform process, and our ability to provide the long-term support that they want.
Although restriction on freedom of expression and association remain, the gradual lifting of these restrictions and the expansion of political space to discuss and debate freely has given rise to multiple voices. That is overall a very welcome development, but some of these voices have encouraged disunity in the country, exposed deeply entrenched prejudice against members of ethnic and religious communities, particularly the Rohingya, and created barriers between communities that were previously peaceful. The politicization of religion and dangerous spread of hate speech could potentially fray community relations further and lead to intercommunal violence, including around election day. This remains one of the hardest challenges for the Government of Burma to address.
Like the United States, Burma is a union, and it would be a tragedy if, in the face of tremendous effort being made to forge political and ethnic unity, the country was divided along racial and religious lines. We have emphasized that democracy is more than just the rule of the majority – it must protect the rights of the minority as well. The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon supports community-based initiatives that promote religious tolerance and respond to rumors and hate speech, including promoting interfaith dialogue between communities. It is encouraging to hear reports of government authorities and community leaders engaged in preventing and controlling potential outbreaks of violence.
We provide humanitarian assistance to members of vulnerable communities in Burma, including Rohingya in Rakhine State, along the Thailand-Burma border, and other areas affected by violence in Burma. Over the past year, the U.S. government has provided more than $50 million for vulnerable Burmese, including Rohingya, in Burma and in the region. These programs continue to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers in health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene.
We closely monitor irregular migration flows from Rakhine State and urge countries in the region to take proactive steps quickly to save the lives of migrants and asylum seekers. We are working with countries in the region to degrade the smuggling and trafficking networks and to ensure that migrants are received in accordance with international standards and humanitarian workers have unrestricted access to all people in need.
We have made clear to the Government of Burma that it must take steps to address the root causes of the crisis, with attention to long-term, sustainable durable solutions and the protection of human rights, including for the Rohingya. Our ambassador to Burma and embassy staff continue to urge local and central authorities to take concrete steps to improve conditions for members of minority populations by continuing to permit internally displaced persons to return to their homes, allowing freedom of movement and access to basic services and livelihoods, and considering longer-term strategies to address the plight of Rohingya. To support peaceful coexistence between Rohingya and Rakhine communities, we will be providing assistance in livelihoods, skills training, and other forms of support to returning internally displaced Rohingya and surrounding Rakhine communities. We are also coordinating with other international partners, including Norway, Australia, and Turkey, who have offered to provide support for the returned communities.
You can read the full testimony by clicking here.

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