01/11/2012 12:19 GMT | Updated 01/01/2013 05:12 GMT

We Can't Keep Ignoring Burma's Rohingya People

Burma's Rohingya people have been subjected to devastating sectarian violence with homes destroyed, families displaces and many killed. In response the Burmese government failed to end the cycles of violence and indeed arguably perpetuated it. And last month witnessed a new wave of violence in the Rakhine State in Burma.

Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch show destruction to the town of Kyaukpyu on Burma's west coast. The pictures reveal 14.4 hectares of destruction, in which some 811 buildings and houseboats have been destroyed. The latest violence has seen over 80 people killed, thousands of houses set on fire and tens of thousands of people displaced.

In parliament this week I asked Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire what assurances the government is seeking from the Burmese government that it will stop the violence in Rakhine state, ensure an end to impunity, and work with the UN Special Rapporteur and others to address the underlying causes of the region's tension.

The UK now needs to make the strongest possible recommendations to the Burmese government. What's more given the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator has called for urgent action and significantly more resources for the humanitarian efforts in Burma's Rakhine State. Justine Greening as secretary of state for international development now needs to outline what plans her department has to respond to the UN's call and provide bilateral humanitarian aid to help meet the great humanitarian need of the people in Rakhine.

Britain has a proud history of long being an advocate for democratic change in Burma and we have all welcomed substantial progress in recent years. But if the Burmese government is unable to quell the violence in Rakhine, it risks causing what the UN has referred to as irreparable damage to its fledgling democracy.

The fact that Burma's President, Thein Sein, has previously requested from the international community assistance in deporting all Rohingya from Burma, suggests that the government is legitimising these attacks. Something has to be done to tackle this deep-rooted idea that the Rohingya, described by the UN as 'virtually friendless' do not belong in Burma. This means a change to the 1982 Citizenship Laws.

Under the current discriminatory law, Rohingyas, despite having lived in Burma for hundreds of years, are not recognised as citizens. For years they have faced severe restrictions on marriage, movement, education and religion in Burma, because they are deemed 'foreigners'. They are, according to the UN, the most persecuted and marginalised people in the world.

The Burmese government response to the latest violence has been described by Phil Roberston, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, as slow and inadequate, and rights groups have said that authorities should have done a better job in preventing the bloodshed, given that the country has been in a state of emergency with increased security since the earlier outbreaks in June.

This is just not good enough. If the government in Burma really wants to preserve its growing democracy and be seen as a stable state, it is going to have to accept and embrace the fact that it is one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries; and it needs to reassess its citizenship to accommodate this and that must include granting citizenship to the Rohingya people.