US, UN React to Arakan Violence

By Lalit K Jha 26 October 2012

WASHINGTON—The United States on Thursday urged all parties including the Burmese government to immediately take steps to halt the ongoing communal violence in Arakan State, and announced an additional humanitarian contribution of US $2.73 million for the displaced persons in the region.

“The United States is deeply concerned about reports this week of increasing ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma’s Rakhine [Arakan] State, and urges parties to exercise restraint and immediately halt all attacks,” the US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, told reporters at her daily news conference.

“We join the international community and call on authorities within the country, including the government, civil and religious leaders, to take immediate action to halt the ongoing violence, to grant full humanitarian access to the affected areas, and to begin a dialogue towards a peaceful resolution, ensuring expeditious and transparent investigations into these and previous incidents,” she said.

The situation in Arakan State underscores the critical need for mutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups, and for serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Burma, she said urging people of Burma to work together towards a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country that respects the rights of all of its diverse people.

Responding to questions, Nuland said the violence in Arakan State has been on the agenda in all of the conversations that the US has had with the Burmese, including last week’s Human Rights dialogue.

US officials have made five visits down to northern Arakan State since the outbreak of the violence in June, she noted. “That, in and of itself, is remarkable if you consider where Burma was a year ago, that they are allowing not only us, but they are allowing other international observers and UN organizations to try to assist them in getting a handle on this. It’s obviously a very difficult problem, and we are working with them on various ways to address it,” she said.

“On October 19th, we announced an additional humanitarian contribution of 2.73 million for displaced people in Rakhine. Two million of that will go through UNHCR and 730,000 will go through UNICEF for water, sanitation, hygiene, and nutritional support. So we are doing what we can to be helpful, and we are in constant conversation with Burmese authorities,” Nuland said.

“But at the root of this problem is the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that plagues both communities in Rakhine state. So over the longer term, it’s going to be a matter of the government providing a better quality of life for both communities there,” she said.

However, she refrained from responding to questions about whether these events would have an impact on the further lifting of sanctions on Burma. “I’m not going to get ahead of where we are, which is to try to work with Burmese authorities on ways to address both the short-term issues and the longer-term issues. As we have said, there are communal issues on both sides; there are issues of poverty on both sides. So these have to be worked out over time. But I’m not going to make any predictions about where this is going to go,” Nuland said.

Meanwhile at the UN headquarters in New York, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said that the latest outbreak of communal violence in five townships in Northern Arakan is deeply troubling.

“The widening mistrust between the communities is being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives, material destruction, displaced families as well as fear, humiliation and hatred affecting the people from all walks of life,” said a statement issued by his spokesman.

Noting that there is clear recognition at the highest political levels in Burma of the need to contain this communal violence, Ban called on the authorities to take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness.

“The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped. If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized,” the statement said.

Observing that Burma is striving to be an example of tolerance and moderation in Asia and the world, the UN statement said such events must not be allowed to tarnish its efforts.

Expressed concern that more lives have been lost in the violence, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said that it is vital for the government and all concerned to prevent further violence and to defuse tensions between the two communities.

Quintana presented a report on the situation of human rights in Burma to the UN General Assembly, which among other things, the situation in Arakan State where violence between communities has left scores dead, over 850 people detained and tens of thousands displaced.

“Buddhist and Muslim communities continue to suffer from the violence in Rakhine State, so it is imperative that the [Burmese] government pursues a policy of integration and long-term reconciliation between the two communities. This will necessarily involve addressing the underlying causes of the tensions, which includes the endemic discrimination against the Rohingya community,” Quintana said in his report.

“Human rights considerations need to shape the process of economic growth, legislative reform and institutional change, while also guiding responses to ongoing serious human rights situations, including in Rakhine and Kachin States,” he stressed.