US Congressional Panel: End Persecution of Muslims in Burma

By Matthew Pennington 26 March 2014

WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday called for an end to persecution of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims in one of the strongest US congressional criticisms yet of Burma’s reformist government.

The committee is charged with overseeing US foreign policy, and the resolution, which was passed unanimously, also urges the United States and the wider international community to press Burma to protect ethnic and religious minorities.

Burma’s ambassador to Washington rejected allegations of mistreatment against minorities and said the government won’t tolerate incitement to religious hatred.

The prospects of the full House taking up the resolution remain uncertain, but it reflects concern in Congress over the outbreaks of communal violence in the country as it shifts toward democracy after decades of direct military rule. It also underscores growing congressional skepticism over the Obama administration’s engagement policy.

Since mid-2012, close to 280 people, mostly Rohingya, have died in Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Arakan State. Some 140,000 Rohingya have been forced into overcrowded camps, and tens of thousands have fled by boat.

Republican committee chairman Ed Royce said Burma can’t claim progress on reforms if it does not improve treatment of the stateless Rohingya. He said the US State Department should “take off the rose-colored glasses.”

“We cannot embrace diplomatic reconciliation with the government of Burma while human rights conditions in that country have deteriorated,” Royce said.

Burma has earned an end to its diplomatic isolation and sanctions relief by undertaking its most significant political and economic reforms in 50 years. Over the past two years, Burma has released hundreds of political prisoners and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to Parliament.

There’s been bipartisan support for the US administration’s engagement with Burma, but the goodwill is starting to ebb.

The quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein faces growing criticism, most recently over its expulsion from Arakan State of the aid agency Doctors Without Borders, which provides health services for 700,000 people there, including camp inmates.

On Monday, a US-based activist group led by a former Democratic congressman, Tom Andrews, reported after visiting the camps that Rohingya face a life-threatening lack of medical care and live in fear of attack. Andrews contended that combined with a climate of rising Buddhist nationalism, there are warning signs of genocide in Burma.

Burma Ambassador Kyaw Myo Htut rejected that report, saying the allegations in it were “completely groundless.” He said the government is “rendering necessary assistance and protection to ensure religious freedom in the nation.”

He also pushed back against criticism over the aid group’s expulsion.

“Termination of the activities of Doctors Without Borders was made in accordance with the desire of the people in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” the ambassador said in a statement to Associated Press.