THE BLOG

Why the UK Government Must Take a Firm Stance on the Rights of the Rohingya

14/09/2012 10:49 BST | Updated 12/11/2012 10:12 GMT

This week I secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the plight of the Rohingya communities in Burma. This past summer over of the course of several weeks, horrific and ugly sectarian violence broke about between the majority Buddhist Rakhine community and the minority muslim Rohingya community in the Rakhine state of Burma.

Reports have told how hundreds have been killed, houses, shops and villages have been torched and up to 100,000 displaced. While violence has been committed on both sides, it's clear that the minority Rohingya community have been the main victims not least because of the alleged complicity of the Burmese security forces in the persecution of the Rohingya muslims.

Almost all the Rohingya people in Sittwe were driven out of their homes as mobs burned down 10,000 houses, and as Human Rights Watch has reported, the police and other paramilitary forces opened fire on them with live ammunition as they tried to put out the flames and save their homes.

What's more reports suggest that, in the north of the Rakhine state, security services have also been directly engaged in violence towards the Rohingya, with allegations of mass killings, mass arrests and looting. Days after the violence started, security forces targeting predominantly Muslim areas arrested many Rohingya men and boys who have not been heard of since.

There are also reports of Rohingya people scared to leave their homes and unable to buy food because businesses have been intimidated into refusing to sell them any.

Meanwhile those who have been displaced have found themselves in make shift camps where malnutrition levels are severe especially among children. It is clear therefore there is a desperate need for humanitarian assistance for both the Rohingya community and, indeed, the Rakhine community in these camps.

However, the humanitarian response has been hampered by restrictions on access, by threats and intimidation and by the arrest of some UN and aid agency staff.

Those Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma on boats to Bangladesh have been refused entry and turned back to sea. Some have estimated that over 1000 Rohingya refugees have been pushed back into the sea. If that was not worrying enough it seems aid agencies have been refused entry to Coz's Bazaar by the authorities for fear they are acting as a magnet for more refugees.

Given how desperate the situation has become UK government must increase pressure on Burma and Bangladesh to allow aid agencies to access refugees in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Underlying the crisis is Burma's 1982 Citizenship Law which denies the Rohingya community citizenship in Burma. For years the Rohingya have been forced to live with restrictions on travel, on property on marriage and even reproduction. They have been described as illegal immigrants and the President has even tried to hand them over to the UN to resettle them in a third country.

But it has not always been like this. Following independence the Burmese Broadcasting Service was authorized to broadcast in the Rohingya language, Rohingyas sat in Parliament and Burma's first President , Sao Shwe Thaike declared 'muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races."

Despite the efforts of Labour MPs such as Sadiq Khan and Rushanara Ali there sadly has not been enough of a focus on the desperate humanitarian crisis that has folded in Burma in recent weeks.

That's why in the debate in Westminster Hall this week I urged the Government to adopt the strongest possible stance on this issue. In particular I called on the UK government to strongly condemn the 1982 Citizenship law and to increase pressure along with international counter parts on the Burmese regime to repeal this discriminatory citizenship law.

Furthermore, it's now absolutely vital that at the UN level the UK government pursues a strong line on any UN resolution and ensures it references the violations of international law, recommends repeal of the 1982 Citizenship Law and strongly condemns the sectarian violence that has taken place.

While we should welcome the Commission into the violence set up by the Burmese government it remains a matter of regret that the Commission has no Rohingya representative on it. The UK government must continue to push for a UN independent inquiry.

Last week in the House of Commons, the Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed he has also had discussions with opposition leaders in Burma including Aug San Suu Sky. I hope our government will continue to have those discussions, particularly given Aung San Suu Kyi's new role as the chair of the rule of law, peace and stability committee.

So over the next weeks its important the UK government ups the pressure on the Burmese government over the treatment of the Rohingya community. The Burmese government if it is to be welcomed into the club of nations moving to democracy must grant citizenship to the Rohingya, guarantee that those engaged in the sectarian violence are properly punished and ensure those who have been displaced - from all communities - are given the chance and necessary support to rebuild their homes and their lives.

This year should have been one of hope for Burma following last year's beginnings of transition from military regime to civilian Government. Of course we should welcome the small tentative steps that Burma is taking to democracy. Equally, however, we should be in no doubt that, for Burma to become truly democratic, it must celebrate the diversity of its people, and that must include the Rohingya.