RANGOON — A petition calling attention to the potential “genocide” of Rohingya Muslims is inching toward one million signatories as President Thein Sein prepares to visit Europe and activists urge European leaders to discuss human rights concerns when they meet the former general next week.
In a message to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, more than 984,000 signatories as of Friday urged the Western leaders to address the plight of Burma’s 800,000 or so Rohingya people, an ethnic minority that has faced decades of discrimination and a campaign of deadly ethnic violence in the last year.
“As citizens deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Burma, we call on you to press the Burmese President to urgently protect the Rohingya using all means necessary, and grant them citizenship and full legal rights when you meet with him this month,” states the petition, put forward by the online advocacy group Avaaz.
“We urge you to insist he implement such measures and tackle the impunity of aggressors to stop the violence as a condition of improved trading relations,” the petition continues, likening discrimination against Rohingya to genocide. The New York-based Human Rights Watch in April made a similar comparison, saying last year’s violence amounted to “ethnic cleansing.”
About 140,000 Rohingya Muslims—who are not granted citizenship rights under Burmese law—were forced from their homes during two bouts of communal violence in Arakan State last year. Nearly all of them remain in temporary camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), where health and human rights concerns have been raised by aid organizations, advocacy groups and foreign leaders.
This week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the refrain, saying violence against the minority Muslims was “deplorable and unacceptable.”
“There is a dangerous polarization taking place within Myanmar,” he told the Group of Friends on Myanmar, which includes delegates from 14 nations including France and Britain, on Wednesday. “If it is not addressed urgently and firmly, underlying tensions could provoke more upheaval, undermining the reform process and triggering negative regional repercussions.”
Rohingya leader Abu Tahay told The Irrawaddy that the threat of Burma’s troubles spilling over the border made European leaders’ attention to the matter more likely. In fellow Asean nation Indonesia, Muslim radicals have called for jihad against Burma’s Buddhist majority, and Indonesian authorities earlier this year foiled a plot to bomb the Burma Embassy in Jakarta.
“The Rohingya issue is not only our local issue—it has become a regional and international issue,” said Abu Tahay of the Union Nationals Development Party, who met with Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr this week in Burma to discuss the situation in Arakan State.
Asked by The Irrawaddy if concerns about the Rohingya would be on the agenda at next week’s talks in Europe, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) said human rights concerns would be among the subjects discussed.
“Human rights and ethnic issues will be at the heart of our discussions,” a FCO spokesperson said. “We hope to have a frank dialogue on the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State, following the visits of [FCO Minister] Hugo Swire in December and [Minister for International Development] Alan Duncan in June. We will emphasize the urgent need to improve humanitarian access, to address accountability for crimes, and to end discrimination against the Rohingya community.”
Advocacy groups on the ground in Britain and France are gearing up for the Burmese president’s visit from Sunday through Thursday, with protests and press conferences planned in conjunction with the online Avaaz petition.
“Despite the appalling human rights abuses which continue, the British and French governments no longer prioritize human rights in their dealings with Burma,” said Célestine Foucher, coordinator for Paris-based Info Birmanie, which has been campaigning for human rights in Burma since 1996. “Rather than focusing on trade issues, the British and French governments should be aiming to secure concrete agreement on key human rights issues, such as an international investigation into abuses against the Rohingya minority.”
Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), said his group was mailing every member of the British Parliament, as well as publishing a series of reports on what BCUK sees as the shortcomings of Thein Sein’s reform agenda.
The group is also employing less conventional means of getting policy makers’ attention, like encouraging supporters to buy a pair of pink glasses to be sent to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “to highlight how the British government takes a rose-tinted view of the situation in Burma.”
“Key demands will be on political prisoners, including Burma in the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative [PSVI], and international investigation into abuses in Rakhine State,” Farmaner told The Irrawaddy. The PSVI is a G8 campaign to prevent rape and sexual abuse in conflict zones, but Burma is not included on a list of targeted countries.
Thein Sein has made a habit of releasing batches of political prisoners ahead of excursions abroad. More than a dozen political prisoners were freed prior to a high-profile visit in May to Washington, where the Burmese president met with US President Barack Obama. The release of more than 50 prisoners also coincided with a decision by the European Union to permanently lift economic sanctions against Burma in April.
Bo Kyi, joint-secretary of Burma’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), spoke out against the practice.
“We have been repeating that the government has used a pattern of political prisoners’ release ahead of official visits abroad,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “President U Thein Sein has said that he doesn’t use the political prisoners as political tools, but there were some simultaneous moves that happened in the past.”
Bo Kyi, who is on a government committee that formed in February to review the status of Burma’s political prisoners, said his organization estimates that there are 157 prisoners of conscience remaining behind bars, with more facing charges or on trial. He told The Irrawaddy that he had received no indication of an impending amnesty linked to next week’s visit.
Additional reporting by Saw Yan Naing.