THE BLOG

Britain Must Think About Its Relationship With Burma Over the Treatment of the Rohingyas

10/07/2015 16:22 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

While the EU continues to struggle with the Mediterranean refugee crisis, South East Asia has been facing a potential catastrophe as Burma's Rohingya flee their homes in search of safety across the Andaman Sea. The scenes of thousands of people stranded on boats and the harrowing discovery of mass graves have recently commanded the world's attention, but the Rohingya minority's desperation is not new and they are no strangers to injustice.

Ethnic and religious prejudices, backed up by state-sponsored discrimination, mean the Rohingya have never been accepted in their own country. Their government labels them as "Bengali" and denies them any citizenship rights. For their part, Bangladesh too refuses to give them a home. When communal violence erupted three years ago, hundreds of people lost their lives, homes were razed to the ground and 140,000 innocent people had to flee.

Since then, the Rohingya have been shunted into "Internally Displaced People" camps, a dispassionate term that belies the personal tragedies of those living there. They suffer in conditions which UN international disaster experts have described as "abysmal", "appalling" and "heart-breaking". The UN Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs reported that he "witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before". The UN expert on Human Rights in Burma has even warned that the treatment of the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity.

Is it any wonder that thousands have put their lives in the hands of people traffickers, trying to seek a better life in another country?

In recent years, following some positive moves, some have concluded that Burma is making great strides towards democracy. The UK government opened a UK Trade and Investment office in Burma in July 2012, such was their early optimism and the prime minister took business leaders to Burma even before the EU lifted trade sanctions in 2013. But there is a danger that too many are now looking at Burma through rose-tinted glasses. President Obama has been alert to this and accused Burma of "backsliding" on reforms. For example there are still reserved seats for the military in the parliament.

While the UK government is giving £82million this year to help the people of Burma, and has spent £18million on humanitarian aid to deal with the crisis in the Rohingyas' home state of Rakhine, there is concern that David Cameron's government has allowed itself to be distracted by the economic opportunities Burma represents, including its extractive industries, and has not used the leverage the UK financial assistance gives us.

For example, the UK donated £10million to fund Burma's census last year but failed to ensure the rights of the Rohingya population would be respected, with the Burmese government giving false assurances that they would honour the right to self-identify. The Rohingya were prevented from declaring their own ethnic identity - those who did were not counted - and the census sparked further violence around Burma. The Burmese government has since revoked the Rohingyas' registration cards, meaning they will not be permitted to vote in the election later this year.

Burma's opposition leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has herself suffered at the hands of Burma's military dictatorship. Her personal sacrifice fighting for democracy has rightly been lauded by the international community. But she has disappointed many with her failure to speak out in defence of the Rohingya. Her silence is a striking illustration of just how unpopular it can be to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, and how far this majority Buddhist country is from racial and religious harmony. And it makes it all the more important that the international community speaks out.

The prime minister and foreign secretary must acknowledge that their support for Burma has not secured basic human rights and a safe home for the Rohingya; it has not ended the impunity for sexual violence or the fear and suffering this fuels; it has not led to the release of all political prisoners; and it has not delivered the constitutional reforms that could allow genuinely free and fair elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi is permitted to stand.

Calls have rightly been made for the UN secretary general to co-ordinate an international response to the crisis, but the UK government should think about its own relationship with Burma and wield its significant and growing influence to help renew Burma's progress towards peace and democracy and ensure the Rohingya have their human rights fully respected.

Kerry McCarthy is a shadow foreign minister and Labour MP for Bristol East