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'Front edge of a disaster'

Nik MartinApril 23, 2013

As the European Union permanently lifts sanctions against Myanmar, rights campaigners warn that the country is on 'the front edge of a major disaster.'

Hla Hla Myint, a victim of recent violence with a head gunshot wound, rests in a bed at a hospital in Kyuktaw township October 25, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)
Image: Reuters

The EU's decision to eliminate most of the remaining sanctions on Myanmar ignores strong evidence of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by the government, says Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based campaign group released a report alleging the involvement of state security forces during last year's violence in Arakan state.

The 153-page document was issued hours ahead of a meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on Monday.

After decades of tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, fighting broke out last June and again in October. Over 180 people were killed and more than 125,000 people were displaced.

Other ethnic conflicts have also intensified since Myanmar - also known as Burma - opened up following decades of military rule in 2011.

Lost leverage?

Speaking to DW in neighboring Thailand, the report's author Matthew Smith said: "I think the economic forces within the EU have taken over these debates and this is largely why we are seeing the sanctions lifted. There is too much interest in capitalizing - in the strict sense - on Myanmar's political opening and unfortunately human rights are being cast aside."

A boat carrying 73 Rohingya refugees is intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand (Photo: AP/dapd)
The UNHCR has urged Myanmar's neighbors to let in refugeesImage: AP

Smith said Brussels had lost some of its leverage to pressure Myanmar leaders by rolling back non-military sanctions. He called on EU leaders to figure out a "clear-eyed approach" to address "serious human rights problems."

HRW's report included around 200 individual and group interviews with Muslims and Buddhists on both sides of the ongoing ethnic tensions. Witnesses described how villages were burned to the ground, civilians were hacked to death and bodies were dumped into mass graves.

"Contrary to the government's assertion that what we are seeing is purely at a communal level, what we have found has been a high level of involvement of state security forces," Smith said.

Nowhere to go

The Burmese government considers ethnic Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But thousands of these people claim their roots in the country dating back several generations. The Rohingya were excluded from a 1982 law which guaranteed citizenship for many other ethnic groups. HRW has demanded the law be amended.

Refugee camps have been set up for those internally displaced by the bloodshed in Arakan state while thousands have attempted to flee to neighboring countries. Bangladesh has refused to host new refugees despite pledges of international assistance. Travel within Myanmar is restricted for most Rohingya.

The only remaining choice is to escape by sea. But likewise, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have turned arriving boats away from their shores and hundreds have died at sea.

A pigeon perching near a European Union flag in Brussels September 13, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)
The EU has lifted sanctions in recognition of Myanmar's ongoing democratic reformsImage: Reuters

"Now the numbers of Rohingya who are fleeing (in boats) include women and children. Typically it was males that would take the risky journey by sea and the numbers are increasing significantly," Smith added.

"There is an urgent need that the international community address this and that all these governments be pressured to at least offer temporary shelter to the Rohingya and to provide UN agencies, including the UNHCR, access to these populations when they arrive."

Coming crisis

Aid agencies warn that the upcoming monsoon season is likely to spell disaster for those living in makeshift camps within Myanmar. The region is regularly hit by Cyclones and subject to severe flooding.

Maung Kyaw Nu, President of the Burma Rohingya Association Thailand has demanded that refugees be moved uphill. "Mostly, these people are given shelter the low lands - paddy land areas. Most people live in straw huts. So when the monsoon starts, there will be floods and I am frightened (whether) people are going to (stay) alive or not. The situation is already very dire for those in camps."

Kyaw Nu, whose organization has more than 3,500 members, thinks the EU is ignoring the Rohingya "genocide" by permanently lifting economic and trade sanctions on Myanmar.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcomes Myanmar President Thein Sein (L) before a meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on March 5, 2013 (Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Human rights should not be cast aside for economic benefits, say rights activistsImage: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

"Their interest is business, geopolitical and strategic. Their interests are (put) above human rights. Most of the world's leaders are doing business with Myanmar. So I ask them to save humanity first before economic interests, that is, if humanity in the world still exists."

In a statement released on Monday, the EU called for additional measures to deal with "inter-communal violence" and called on the Myanmar government to address the status of the Rohingya.

The council also highlighted the need for "unhindered and full access for humanitarian and development aid workers to all communities affected by conflict and sectarian violence."