An Intern’s eye view: A week of advocacy for Burma’s ethnic nationals.

June 19th, 2013

An Intern’s eye view: A week of advocacy for Burma’s ethnic nationals.

The plight of Burma’s ethnic nationals was in the spotlight last week with peers discussing the issue twice on Wednesday, and a demonstration for the Global day of Action for Kachin on Friday.

HART’s aim is to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’. Burma’s ethnic nationals are precisely that: oppressed by the Government of Burma, civilians groups are being targeted by the army even in areas where there are ceasefire agreements. Last week, amidst the grandeur of Westminster and Whitehall, their plight was given a voice. As a HART Intern I was able to attend both.

On Wednesday, in the House of Lords, Lord Alton tabled both an oral question and later a full debate. He bluntly commented on concerns over the enthusiastic international reception of Burma’s reforms, stating that ‘the euphoria is premature, misplaced and profoundly dangerous.’ He shared that in a conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘she said that we must be less euphoric and more realistic, and that nations such as ours must get their response right.’

The debate focused on two ethnic minority groups that have faced oppression and political marginalisation in the past year. Firstly, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group ‘living in a system of 21st century apartheid… they need to introduce a new citizenship law in line with international norms.’ The Rohingya were made stateless by Burma’s 1982 citizenship act, which did not recognise them as Burmese citizens, despite having lived in Burma for centuries. As a result they have experienced severe persecution and the denial of many fundamental human rights. As you may have seen on the news the severity of persecution has recently increased and attacks have become more organised, even incited by some Buddhist monks.

Secondly, the Kachin peoples, a Christian minority in northern Burma. On June 9th 2011, the Burmese army broke a 17 year ceasefire agreement in Kachin state, since then Kachin civilians have suffered various abuses, including rape, torture, at the hands of the Burma Army. Over 360 villages have been destroyed and their inhabitants displaced to camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs). It is estimated that at least 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes. An agreement was reached between the two parties earlier this week but many peers expressed fears over how long it will last. Baroness Cox highlighted that ‘the Burmese Government have a sorry record of brokering and breaking ceasefires.’

There is serious concern over the lack of humanitarian access to both these groups. The Government in Burma continues to deny the UN and other international organisations access to parts of Kachin State. Baroness Cox asked ‘What representations are being made by Her Majesty’s Government to the Burmese Government to allow access by international aid organisations to all people in need in Burma?

Given the continued abuses against ethnic nationals, NGOs and human rights activists were apprehensive when the EU made the decision to lift trade sanction against Burma back in April. Baroness Nye commented that ‘foreign investment will succeed only if there is a politically stable environment in which to do business. That means that human rights cannot be ignored in the rush to be in at the beginning of an expanding economy.’ Similarly, Baroness Cox commented that ‘all ethnic national peoples share fears that reforms may be used by the Burmese Government to further their own agenda’

Sitting in the gallery, I was impressed with the amount of firsthand knowledge on Burma’s ethnic nationals in the House of Lords. Several of the Lords speaking, Baroness Cox included, had spent time visiting affected areas or were involved with NGOs. The plight of ethnic nationals was clearly an issue close to many hearts, demonstrated by the number of Lords wishing to contribute and the occasional scrabble to be the next to speak.

We left feeling concerned that the British Government’s policy of ‘engagement’ may be a little optimistic, given that we are dealing with a government which talks of democratic reform, at the same time as attacking its own civilians.

A few days later, the HART team, Baroness Cox, David, Lydia and myself, took part in a demonstration for Kachin. It was organised as part of the Global day of Action for Kachin, by Burma Campaign and Kachin National Organisation, outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

We stood outside the FCO, the bright red and green of the Kachin flag stood out bold against the grand old buildings of Whitehall. I’ve walked past demonstrations so many times since moving to London, it was an interesting experience being on the other side and watching the reactions of passersby. Like looking at yourself from inside a mirror.

The demonstration marked the 2 year anniversary of the breaking of the ceasefire in Kachin state and called on the British Government to exert pressure to stop the Government of Burma attacking civilians and to persue a political settlement which can guarantee lasting peace for ethnic nationals. It was a privilege to be able to stand beside members of the Kachin Diaspora and join with them in chanting slogans at the FCO, calling for the rights of Kachin people to be upheld.

You can join us in being a ‘voice for the voiceless’

Visit our Burma’s Ethnic Nationals campaign page to find out more.

Megan Rowland

By Megan Rowland

Megan is currently volunteering as our Advocacy and Communications Assistant

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