Thursday

19th Oct 2017

Opinion

EU can still end Rohingya ethnic cleansing

  • EU aid worker at a Myanmar camp (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

"A textbook example of ethnic cleansing" is how the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the ongoing campaign of rape, murder and exile of Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese military.

At best silent observers, and at worst facilitators, European leaders must choose whether to use their influence to help stop these atrocities, or to continue to watch as crimes against humanity are committed systematically against my people.

  • "This is a planned operation by one group to destroy another" (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Since the end of August, the majority of Rohingya villages in Rakhine, Burma, have been razed to the ground, with women raped, and children burned alive. More than half a million Rohingya have already crossed the border to Bangladesh, with thousands more arriving every day.

Amongst them are women with new-born babies and children who have witnessed their fathers being murdered. Tens of thousands are starving, as shops and livelihoods have been demolished and access to humanitarian aid denied. Those who do not die of starvation or disease are passing dead bodies everywhere.

If they get to the border, more still are killed by landmines laid by the military. This is not a complex political conflict with two opposing sides. This is a planned operation by one group to destroy another.

In the last fortnight, with no villages left to destroy in the region, the Burmese army have begun tearing apart local infrastructure. Last week Kyauklaykha market in Maungdaw was burnt down by soldiers and security forces. Any remaining civilians are being captured, tortured, extorted, and used as forced labour.

If these atrocities continue at the current rate, the entire Burmese Rohingya population will have been killed, captured, or exiled before the end of the month. This now looks like the likely end of a people who have called Burma home since the 12th Century.

This campaign of oppression by the Burmese state isn't the first we've endured. Since a military coup in 1962, when Rohingyas were left off of the list of officially recognised ethic groups, my people have gradually lost most of our basic rights: to education, freedom of movement, healthcare, marriage, and even our citizenship.

In the 2015 election that brought our current leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to power, we were not allowed to vote.

'Please use your liberty to promote ours' was the plea of Suu Kyi 20 years ago, during Burmese military rule and her 15-year house arrest. People are shocked that the current atrocities could be happening on her watch.

Of course, Suu Kyi should speak out against what is happening and do what she can privately and publicly to stop it, but it must be understood that she holds little sway over the army.

Since we are beholden to a merciless military, who still have control over some of the government, I must repeat her plea to European leaders now: please, use your liberty to promote ours.

Since Suu Kyi came to power, Europe has increased its support and cooperation with Burma, and has launched a vital humanitarian response in recent weeks.

But in the same two years that Europe has given $400 million in aid, it has allowed member states to equip the military that is now attempting to wipe out 1.3 million people, simply for being Rohingya. By sending arms instead of a message of condemnation, European leaders have facilitated this brutality and suffering more than they are it alleviating it.

Even before Suu Kyi took office, the EU was embracing the military and their 'reforms', lifting sanctions despite attacks on my people in 2012.

By ceasing to use the term 'Rohingya' when the government complained, and supporting the census and election which excluded us, Europe was complicit in our subjugation. At every stage so far, the EU has failed to support our rights. We are witnessing the same now.

At the foreign affairs council on the 16 October, ministers have an opportunity to change this by demanding an immediate end to this inhumane operation, and full access for humanitarian operations and officials.

They should end sales of equipment and training of the military, push for a global arms embargo, and reinstate the UN General Assembly Resolution on Human Rights in Burma.

They should remind the forces of their duty to protect civilians, and that impunity for ethnic cleansing, and lack of access for investigators defies their legal obligations. And finally, they must make it clear to those responsible that their actions will come at a cost, and that measures will be severe and far-reaching.

Ultimately, the Rohingya must be able to return home. Not to camps, but to their villages – with rights and dignity. If European leaders speak and act now, there's a chance this ethnic cleansing could end before the last Burmese Rohingya is killed, captured, or exiled.

Tun Khin is president of the Burmese Rohingya organisation UK

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