Malaysiakini Letter

Wholesale lifting of sanctions on Myanmar is counterproductive

Centhra, Paham and Centre for Policy Research  |  Published:  |  Modified:

The Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (Centhra) - Malaysia, Pusat Advokasi Hukum dan Hak Asasi Manusia (Paham) - Indonesia and Neeti Gobeshona Kendro (Centre for Policy Research) - Bangladesh, write to express our disquiet following reports that US President Barack Obama has lifted in total all economic sanctions on Myanmar after a meeting with the State Counsellor of that nation, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Wednesday, Sept 14, 2016.

We note that this decision was made ostensibly due to the so-called improved conditions in Myanmar since its democratic transition, in particular the election of a new civilian government and other liberalising reforms taking place there in these past few months.

While we welcome the democratic reforms and liberalisation taking place within Myanmar in recent times, we cannot agree to and condemn the lifting of economic sanctions still in place by the United States as well as other countries. Lifting of sanctions cannot and must not happen before Myanmar has made any meaningful steps to redress the ongoing persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, particularly in respect of the Rohingya Muslim community.

We believe such a move to be counterproductive towards improving the human rights situation in Myanmar and we resolutely oppose any steps to lift such sanctions before the situation improves in this respect.

We note the decision by Aung San Suu Kyi to hold the 21st Century Panglong Convention or the Second Panglong Conference, which took place on Aug 31, 2016 and was modelled on the Panglong Conference of 1947, a pre-independence unity conference which took place between representatives of various Burmese ethnic groups resulting in an agreement for the creation of a shared nation after independence with equal treatment for all citizens regardless of ethnic origin.

Although the attempt to renew and affirm this vow between ethnic groups situated in Myanmar today is laudable, the non-inclusion of representatives from the Rohingya community in the said conference is to be condemned and casts serious doubt on the true intentions of the new government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi as regards relations between the various ethnic groups today.

Such concern is further exacerbated by the fact that in her said meeting with the US president, Suu Kyi mentioned that her government was making progress in rapprochement only with 135 ethnic groups, far below the actual number of ethnicities resident within Myanmar. This move excludes other communities present within Burmese territory, including the Rohingya and so is appalling and derisory.

Further, while Suu Kyi has constituted a so-called ‘advisory commission’ to be chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and consisting of nine members, six of which are national representatives from Myanmar, these six, besides including figures of dubious repute such as the discredited chair of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, U Win Mra, who issued statements officially denying the blatant persecution of ethnic Rohingya, and Saw Khin Tint who has publicly launched hate-mongering and Islamophobia campaigns and provocations against the same, are also absent of any representation from the Rohingya community.

‘Stateless in their own homeland’

We also note that citizenship that has been deprived from the ethnic Rohingya since at least 1982 with the passage of the Burmese Nationality Law of that year by the ruling military junta in power back then, but possibly going back much further, has yet to be restored to them. This ongoing deprivation has rendered the community stateless in their own homeland.

Further, nearly half of the Rohingyas have been expelled from Myanmar since then, with remaining members forced to live in squalid conditions. They are also forced to endure humiliating restrictions on their freedom of movement and have their economic, social and political rights severely curtailed. Even the right to education has been denied them, with Rohingya youth barred from continuing their studies beyond their basic years.

Since 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have been living in government sanctioned IDP Camps where systematic human rights violations is the day to day norm and where access to food and clean water has been denied. The democratic transition has brought virtually no tangible benefit to the community, with them disenfranchised from voting and representation on account of their lack of citizenship, amongst others.

These substandard conditions have resulted in forced migration of the Rohingya from Myanmar, with many dying in perilous boat voyages made from the country resulting in their corpses showing up in surrounding seas as well as being exhumed in neighbouring countries.

It is evident that, despite this damning state of affairs, Suu Kyi continues to turn a blind eye to the issue, as can be gleaned from her meeting with US Senator Bob Corker, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently. Human trafficking involving principally those of Rohingya origin were casually dismissed as unimportant by her at that meeting in the senator’s presence, appalling him and others in attendance.

It is for these reasons and more that we categorically oppose any lifting of economic and military sanctions against Myanmar until and unless these concerns are addressed and discrimination against the Rohingya is permanently halted, and sufficient amends are made in this regard, including the acceptance of the right of the Rohingya to reside in Myanmar and accordingly, the restoration of their citizenship.

It is also for these reasons that we must oppose also the decision of Harvard University to confer on Aung San Suu Kyi the award for Humanitarian of the Year 2016, which, given her lack of progress on issues of human rights of the Rohingya, will only serve to backfire and open the award to derision, contempt and ridicule.

We therefore urge the US government and Harvard University to rethink their relations with Myanmar given its present situation in the context of the ongoing systematic persecution of Rohingya and accordingly, refrain from the lifting of sanctions and the conferment of any awards.

We also demand the international community continue to pressure the present Myanmar regime to implement the recommendations regardlng ethnic relations made by the UN High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar.


This joint statement is issued by the following organisations: Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (Centhra) - Malaysia; Pusat Advokasi Hukum dan Hak Asasi Manusia (Paham) - Indonesia and Neeti Gobeshona Kendro (Centre for Policy Research), Bangladesh.

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