88 Generation Leaders to UN Envoy: Consider Context When Tackling Arakan’s Woes

By Lawi Weng 15 August 2013

Prominent activists from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have asked the United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights in Burma to approach his job with greater emphasis on understanding the country’s cultural and historical underpinnings, after the UN envoy spoke critically of conditions in Arakan State.

Pyone Cho, a leader from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that his group advised Tomás Ojea Quintana to consider the deep-seated nature of the region’s troubles.

“There have been rights abuses for a long time in this community and it is not only recently the case. We should not speak out suddenly without an approach that understands what the main causes of this conflict are,” Pyone Cho said.

“This is why we told him to understand the customary law, religion and culture of the country first. It is good to approach it this way in working on human rights issues,” he said.

During a meeting on Wednesday with 88 Generation Peace and Open Society leaders including Min Ko Naing, Quintana said he was displeased at being met by protesters during his trip this week to Sittwe, the Arakan State capital.

About 90 ethnic Arakanese people came out to a demonstration there on Monday, with some holding banners that described the UN envoy as a “one-sided Bengali lobbyist” and urging him to leave the western Burma state, which was his first stop on an 11-day visit to assess the human rights situation in the country.

The protesters accused Quintana of bias toward the state’s Rohingya Muslims, who many Arakanese—and Burma’s government—refer to as “Bengali,” reflecting the widespread belief that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Last year, the UN rapporteur drew criticism from Arakanese activists and some 24 political parties after submitting a report to the United Nations about communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the state. Critics said the report was biased, favoring the Rohingya, and they called on the United Nations to remove Quintana from his post.

During this trip, some Rangoon-based daily newspapers and Burmese Facebook users posted photos claiming to show that Quintana had behaved differently in his interactions with the two communities’ leaders. They noted that while he paid respect by kneeling down in front of Muslim leaders, he sat without showing similar deference in discussions with some Arakanese Buddhist monks.

The BBC Burmese service reported on Wednesday that Quintana told the Arakan State government that he was concerned by the continued divides that exist between the two religious communities.

Ko Ko Gyi, an 88 Generation Peace and Open Society leader, told the BBC that the situation on the ground at present required the separation.

“At the moment, there is only one solution: to let them stay divided in order to avoid [further] conflict. If violence results from letting them stay together in the community, will they [the international community] come to help with security?

“He has to look at both sides, the politics and human rights, when solving this conflict. Quintana should not look only at human rights,” Ko Ko Gyi said.

The Arakan State government has allowed the two communities to stay divided after Buddhists and Muslims clashed in 2012. A commission tasked with investigating the violence released a report in April that said a lack of trust between the two groups was a major problem preventing inter-communal harmony.

The commission, which Ko Ko Gyi was a member of, recommended that reintegration of the communities be postponed until further reconciliation efforts could be undertaken. It also suggested voluntary family planning programs be implemented for Rohingya Muslims, whose rapid population growth was cited as one element fueling tensions. The commission proposal was widely condemned by the human rights community, and a two-child limit for Rohingya was later imposed in one Arakan district.

The violence last year displaced 140,000 people, most of whom were Rohingya Muslims. The internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain in 76 camps and other temporary shelters, with government restrictions imposed on their movements.

Movement restrictions on Rohingya Muslims have also left as many as 36,000 people isolated in communities in several townships, including Minbya, Myebon, Pauktaw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Sittwe, according to the United Nations. These communities have been affected socially and economically, with limited or no access to basic services including markets, education and health care.