Over the past two months, a major humanitarian crisis has unfolded in Burma's Arakan State. State-sponsored sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas has left at least 90,000 people displaced and hundreds dead. The Rohingyas are stateless, despite having lived in Burma for generations, and are among the world's most persecuted people. There is an urgent need for international action – and for prayer.
The first fragile signs of hope in Burma are in danger of being eclipsed by a very dark and stormy cloud.
As Aung San Suu Kyi travelled outside Burma for the first time in 24 years last month, visiting several European cities including London and Oxford, shocking sectarian violence erupted in Arakan State, western Burma, between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.
Although violence was committed by both sides, it was primarily an anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim campaign which appears to have been stirred up by forces within the regime. What began as communal violence became a state-sponsored pogrom in which at least 90,000 people were displaced. Hundreds were killed, and then the security forces went house to house arresting Rohingyas.
The crisis is continuing, with access for humanitarian aid organisations severely restricted, and many Rohingyas denied aid. In addition, Bangladesh has turned away thousands of Rohingyas fleeing for their lives, sending them back to a very uncertain fate in Burma.
Policy of ethnic cleansing
Most shockingly, Burma's President Thein Sein asked the United Nations to take responsibility for the 800,000-strong Rohingya population, and then resettle them to a third country, in a policy that amounts to ethnic cleansing.
The Rohingyas have lived in Burma for generations, but were stripped of their citizenship in the 1982 Citizenship Law, and rendered stateless. When I visited Rohingya refugees living in dire conditions on the Bangladesh-Burma border in 2008, they told me: "Bangladesh tells us you are Burmese, go back to Burma; Burma tells us you are Bengali, go back to Bangladesh. Where do we go?" One person added: "We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake."
This statelessness is at the heart of the problem. As non-citizens in Burma, for years the Rohingyas have faced severe persecution, including restrictions on movement, marriage, education and religion. In addition to persecution by the regime, racist and anti-Muslim sentiment within society, particularly among the Rakhines but also among some other people in Burma, has been stirred up. The effects have been devastating.
Provide aid, review the citizenship law
There is an urgent need for international action. First, pressure must be put on Thein Sein and his government to provide unhindered access to all parts of Arakan State for humanitarian aid and for international monitors to ensure that aid is distributed to all in need, without discrimination. A review of the Citizenship Law is needed, and all people who were born in Burma should immediately be recognised as citizens.
Bangladesh must be urged to live up to its obligations under international law and stop sending back those who are fleeing persecution and violence.
The United Nations, which clearly rejected Thein Sein's proposal, should hold an urgent session of the Human Rights Council to address the crisis. The Secretary-General should speak out, and strong wording should be included in the UN General Assembly resolution on Burma, currently being drafted.
In CSW, we stand for freedom of religion for all people, and it is clear that the Rohingyas are facing severe persecution on religious and racial grounds. The current crisis threatens to derail Burma's reform process. In addition, there is a very real danger that the Rohingyas' plight could be hijacked by extremist Islamists and used for their agenda – already Indonesian Islamists have called for a jihad against Burma. These threats will only grow if we stay silent.
Religious freedom in Burma is under threat, and a free and peaceful future for Burma is at stake. Please pray for all the people of Burma, and for voices of peace and justice to speak out. Pray for effective international action to address the humanitarian crisis and prevent a genocide. Pray for the cycle of hatred to stop and for true inter-racial and inter-religious reconciliation.
On Sunday 12 August, we are calling for a special day of prayer for Burma. It will be four days after the 24th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests on 8 August 1988 – an anniversary marked each year and known as "8888". We urge you to ask your church to pray for Burma in your Sunday services – and we will provide prayer points to help you. Pray that Burma can pull back from the brink – and return to the path of reform that has given so many people hope.
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If you're in the UK...
Email your MP today! The crisis in Arakan State requires UN attention – urge your MP to ask the Foreign Secretary to raise the crisis with the Secretary-General, calling on him to make a public statement. Call for strong language in the resolution on Burma at the UN General Assembly, and for an urgent session of the UN Human Rights Council to address the crisis.
Wherever you live...
Use our online petition to send your own message to Burma's President, Thein Sein. Now is the best opportunity in more than twenty years to call for progress and respect for human rights, please add your voice to our campaign.
The decades-long persecution of the people of Burma has forced thousands to go on the run. Many end up in refugee camps along the borders of the country; but tragically, the level of violence means that many others are killed along the way. Having lost home and family, these children must then find shelter in the orphanages in the camps. While CSW engages in high-level advocacy to end the conflict in Burma, this gift is your chance to invest in the future population of this beautiful land.
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