Latest Update: 31 March 2013
From January to March 2013 there were encouraging signs of progress by the Burmese government on a number of human rights issues, including political prisoners. However we continue to be concerned about ethnic conflict, especially in Kachin State, and the situation in Rakhine State. We are also deeply troubled by the recent outbreak of violence in Meiktila.
Serious violence against the Muslim community erupted in Meiktila, in Mandalay Division, on 20 March. Following an altercation between a Muslim jewellery shop owner and a Buddhist customer, a large mob attacked and set fire to Muslim-owned shops and homes and Islamic madrassas and mosques. Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, attacks continued over the following days, resulting in at least 40 deaths (confirmed figures are not yet available). In a number of cases the local security forces reportedly failed to intervene effectively to stop the violence. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. In the following days anti-Muslim attacks in several other places in central Burma targeted mosques and Muslim-owned homes.
FCO Minister Alistair Burt released a statement on 21 March calling for an immediate end to the violence and urging the Burmese government to protect civilians and tackle the hostility behind the attacks. The British Ambassador urgently lobbied senior Burmese government officials and religious leaders to reinforce this message. He visited Meiktila on 24 March to see the aftermath of the attacks, before going on to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw to discuss the violence. We continue to monitor the situation closely.
The security situation In Rakhine State remains calm, but tense. We are particularly concerned by credible reports claiming local and regional security forces’ complicity in human rights abuses against the local Rohingya population, including reports of rapes and assaults. Some 130,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, remain displaced in camps. The Chargé d’Affaires visited from 11-12 March to meet local government officials, civil society and aid agencies. We continue to urge improvements to humanitarian access and coordination, particularly as the rainy season approaches. Significant numbers of Rohingya have left Burma in boats operated by gangs of people smugglers. Most have ended up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. We have lobbied the Thai government to seek compliance with international humanitarian conventions governing the protection of refugees.
We hope that the Rakhine Investigative Commission report, due to be published on 31 March, will provide concrete recommendations to achieve security, accountability for those responsible for violence and a resolution of the citizenship status of the Rohingya. We have urged the Burmese government to give full consideration to all the recommendations and to respond to these quickly once the report is published.
Following continued conflict during January in Kachin State, we were encouraged by initial rounds of dialogue between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) which began in early February. We continue to call for both sides to end hostilities. British officials in Rangoon are in regular contact with both the Burmese government and the KIO. We stand ready to support the peace process in whatever way we can. British officials have also travelled to Kachin State on several occasions, most recently 12-13 March, to speak directly to members of the Kachin community and assess the challenges faced in resolving the conflict. UK humanitarian aid to people affected by the conflict now totals £3.5 million, making us the largest bilateral humanitarian donor to Kachin State.
The British Government raises the issue of political prisoners with its Burmese counterparts at every opportunity, urging that they be released unconditionally. Local contacts estimate that there are between 200-250 people still in custody for political offences, although there is no agreement on the precise figure. The Burmese government recently established a scrutiny committee to review the cases of all the remaining political prisoners. It held its first meeting on 23 February. We have made clear our expectation that the review mechanism should operate in an independent, transparent and credible manner.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, visited Burma from 12 to 16 February. In his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, published on 6 March, he confirmed that “significant human rights shortcomings remain unaddressed” and highlighted concerns over torture and ill-treatment in Kachin, the remaining political prisoners, problematic implementation of new laws related to freedom of assembly and human rights violations arising from growing investment. The UN Human Rights Council renewed Mr Quintana’s mandate through the adoption by consensus of a resolution on Burma on 20 March. The resolution highlighted the concerns he had raised and called on the Burmese government to uphold its commitment to opening an Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and to sign the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention against Torture.
On 11 March a report was published into the protests at Letpadaung Copper Mine in November 2012 by a Commission led by Aung San Suu Kyi. During the protests some 20 people, including Buddhist monks, were injured, allegedly by Burmese riot control police. The Commission recommended that the mine continue operations on the grounds that it would bring economic benefits and that existing contracts should be honoured. It recommended better compensation and new job opportunities for those displaced, improved environmental protection and greater transparency. The Commission also confirmed that the police had used phosphorus during the clearance operations, and called for better police training. President Thein Sein has now established a ministerial committee to implement the recommendations of the report. We will monitor the work of this committee.