US Urges Restraint in Arakan

By Lalit K Jha 19 June 2012

Expressing concern over ethnic and sectarian tensions in Arakan State and urging all parties to exercise restraint, the Obama administration on Monday nevertheless said that the Burmese government is “working hard” to calm the situation, as the UN called for a full, impartial and credible investigation into the violence.

“We remain concerned about the ethnic and sectarian tensions in Burma following the attacks in Rakhine State,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “We are continuing to urge all parties to exercise restraint, to refrain from violence. Our understanding is that the government continues to call for calm.”

Responding to a question on the role of the Burmese government, she said “they are working hard” to try to get calm so that there can be dialogue. “But it’s been difficult. There are still skirmishes. And unfortunately, that border with Bangladesh remains closed,” she noted.

The United States, she said, has urged Bangladesh to open its borders for refugees and to meet its international obligations. “We’re concerned that they [Burma and Bangladesh] are both intercepting and turning back people who are fleeing, and we urge them to respect their obligations under the relevant refugee conventions and to continue their longstanding policy of non-refoulement, which unfortunately has not been honored right now,” she said.

Meanwhile, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed its deep concern over the welfare of people fleeing violence in Arakan State. The agency said that it recognizes that for years, Bangladesh has been bearing the brunt of the forced displacement caused by earlier crises in Burma. It said that the latest events pose new challenges and the UNHCR hopes that Bangladesh will respond in line with the country’s long history of compassion and solidarity.

UNHCR said it is following developments in the region, and noted that the situation remains fragile. It said it stands ready to provide assistance and support to the governments and the peoples of Bangladesh and Burma, a UN spokesman said.

Last week, the UN Secretary- General’s Special Adviser for Burma, Vijay Nambiar, visited Arakan State. The UN diplomat noted Naypyidaw’s prompt, firm and sensitive response to the serious disturbances in Arakan.

Nambiar called for a full, impartial and credible investigation of the disturbances to be conducted urgently, as well as to ensure that the rule of law is enforced in a transparent manner.

“While Aung San Suu Kyi is in Europe for a landmark visit, the sectarian clashes between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in Rakhine state in western Myanmar are not far from her mind,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, the vice-president of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society.

“The violence has left at least 17 people dead and driven an estimated 30,000 Muslims from their homes. Ms. Suu Kyi has joined Thein Sein’s government, which has imposed a state of emergency, in calling for calm,” said DiMaggio, who was in Norway to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual peace mediators retreat, where Aung San Suu Kyi participated this week.

“Against the backdrop of the current Rohingya crisis, resolving ethnic conflicts in Myanmar is one of the most difficult challenges facing President Thein Sein and his government. As Myanmar is in the process of a still fragile period of transition, long simmering ethnic and religious divisions could undermine hard won reforms,” she said.

“Ultimately, if the government wants to bring about lasting stability, the plight of the stateless Rohingya population must be part of a comprehensive reconciliation program,” DiMaggio said.

Meanwhile, the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, said the subject of Burma was also discussed between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna. She said that Burma has not sought any foreign intervention.

“The [US] Secretary and Foreign Minister Krishna did talk about Burma, as they always do, when they were together last week, the whole gamut of Burma-related issues. To my knowledge, the Burmese government has not asked for any foreign intervention, per se,” she said.