A delegation of Burmese parliamentarians is visiting Washington, DC this week, ostensibly to learn about how American democracy works. The visit, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, is likely to be filled with positive encouragement for the rapid reforms unfolding in the country and a few whispered conversations about American investment opportunities. But the real question that needs to be asked is: what is the Burmese government doing to address ongoing severe abuses against minority ethnic groups?
According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana the answer is nothing at all. Earlier this week he said the government has “an obligation to conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations” but that he has seen “absolutely no evidence that the Government is fulfilling its obligation.”
Local police continue to commit abuses with impunity, and the fatal shooting of three Rohingya women participating in a peaceful protest last week is the latest in a series of examples.
And the discrimination does not stop at the local level. Burma’s Minister of Immigration has expressed support for a two-child policy limiting the number of children that Rohingya can have, despite international condemnation. Rohingya continue to lack legal status within Burma and have faced further policies that control marriages, limit access to education and employment, and restrict freedom of movement within the country. This restriction of movement is especially concerning as the Burmese government has failed to make plans to return IDPs to their villages or allow resettlement in other areas, resulting in fears of long-term segregation in refugee camps.
Since fighting last June, the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate in Rakhine State, home of the 800,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority. The most recent report by Quintana on the situation on human rights in Burma cites approximately 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). These IDPs are living in refugee camps without access to adequate health care and housing. Within camps, reports suggest the targeting of Rohingya men and boys for arbitrary detention and torture without access to legal counsel. Muslim women and girls are left vulnerable to rape and violence perpetrated by Burmese security forces responsible for peacekeeping in the region.
Still, camps remain a better option than remaining in burned-out villages targeted in anti-Muslim violence since last year. Images of rubble and smoking ruins invoke familiarity with Darfur and Syria, impressing the fact that, other than refugee camps, there is nowhere else to go.
A major step to protect the Rohingya would be to amend the country’s 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure all persons in Burma, including the Rakhine, have equal citizenship rights and protections against discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. On the parliamentarian delegation’s visit around Washington this week, Boehner would do well to ask his guests about the legal status of the Rohingya population, and what steps the Burmese government will take to end these atrocities.
Judging by the latest reports he is not likely to get a particularly satisfying answer. All the more reason to maintain what leverage the U.S. has on Burma. If the U.S. administration is all too eager to reward, it is up to Congress to make sure necessary leverage and attention to human rights is maintained, starting by renewing sanctions legislation. That would be a real lesson in the democratic values that the United States is all about.