Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Will Boris let Burma's rulers get away with murder?

Dear friend

On Monday European Union foreign ministers will meet to discuss the situation in Burma and announce what action they will take.
 
The United Nations Special Envoy on Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, recently warned that the Burmese army's violence against the Rohingya bears the "hallmarks of a genocide".
 
In the face of such mass atrocities, the EU has still not taken any action to put real pressure on the Burmese army.
 
Please email now to demand that the EU finally takes action.
 
Will the EU let Burma's rulers get away with murder?
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently visited refugee camps in Bangladesh and also visited Rakhine State in Burma. After witnessing the devastation there, he said ""I've seen nothing like it in my life. Hundreds and hundreds of villages torched."
 
So far, instead of supporting Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Burmese army, facing justice at the International Criminal Court, Boris Johnson has called on the Burmese authorities to carry out their own investigation. That's like asking a murderer to investigate their own crimes.
 
The continuing lack of action from the international community sends a clear message to the Burmese army and government that they can get away with committing such grave crimes.
 
The only hope for ending the cycle of violence against the Rohingya, and Burma's other ethnic minorities, is strong action by the international community.
 
Email Boris Johnson and European Union Foreign Ministers now to demand action.
 
Thank you for your support
 
Anna Roberts
Burma Campaign UK
 
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FBR: Life and Faith in the Face of New Attacks: A Playground and Church in Kobani, Syria


Life and Faith in the Face of New Attacks: A Playground and Church in Kobani, Syria

21 February 2018

Kobani, Syria

Children playing on the new playground.
Children playing on the new playground.

Syria is in its seventh year of civil war and now the Turkish military has launched an offensive into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria while pro-Syria regime forces have attacked Kurds in eastern Syria this week. The Kurds have been the most effective force against ISIS in Syria and have US support but the Syrian regime of Assad views them as a threat to their power and Turkey sees them as a threat as well. Turkey has a large Kurdish population of over 20,000,000 and an ongoing Kurd insurgency inside Turkey. Turkey views the Kurds in Syria as part of this insurgency and want to make sure the Kurds in Turkey get no support from the Syrian Kurds. On January 20, 2018, the Turkish Army along with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who in this area are composed of reportedly radical Muslim groups and some remnants of ISIS, launched an air and ground campaign against the town and area of Afrin, one of the only peaceful areas of Syria. The Kurds have kept ISIS at bay all through the war and Afrin had become a refuge for thousands of fleeing Kurds and Arabs of different groups and faiths. Now over 100 people have been killed by the joint Turkish-FSA attacks and Turkey has increased its airstrikes. At the same time, pro-Assad forces have attacked the Kurds in the Deir Ez-Zor area of eastern Syria. This attack has been stopped by the Kurds with US air support. In the midst of these new attacks and offensives, the Kurds are rebuilding towns like Kobani, which has been ravaged by both Assad and ISIS.

Bashir and some of our team in the ruins of Kobani.
Bashir and some of our team in the ruins of Kobani.

Kobani rises from the plains on the Syria/Turkish border, a gray-brown city that blends into the dusty winter landscape. Most buildings are brown adobe or gray cinderblock. Evidence of construction is everywhere as the people rebuild following successive destructive wars – first suffering under the bombs of Assad in 2012 and then the invasion of ISIS and fight to oust them in 2014. Adding to the pain, the Turkish government put a wall up in 2016 blocking access to Kobani from the north. One street remains untouched: gutted buildings with interiors gaping, twisted rebar and piles of rubble that used to be walls and ceilings – by decision of the people, these will remain as evidence of the violence wreaked on Kobani, that made it for months the headline symbol of senseless suffering. But: new life is springing up here, there is new color in the landscape.

The playground and the program.
The playground and the program.

On the outskirts of town a large orphanage is under construction. This is for some 900 children who lost a parent to the war. Many of these were orphaned in the massacre of June 25th, 2015, when ISIS swept back into Kobani, after they had already been pushed out, and wantonly killed over 200 men, women and children (see our report from 16 July 2016).  Standing out against the gray of the new buildings and brown of the landscape, a new, colorful playground rises beside the orphanage – this is thanks to Reload Love, part of their vision of bringing love to kids caught up in war. The playground is the brightest thing in the area – and when we invite the kids from the local neighborhood in for a Good Life Club program at the playground, they swarm over the slides, swings, merry-go-round, and see-saws. It's frenetic play, like they want to cram in as much as possible because they don't know how long it will last.

Kids get new shirts.
Kids get new shirts.
Children at the program with new shirts from Reload Love.
Children at the program with new shirts from Reload Love.

Bashir, our Syrian Christian team member, helps us gather them for a GLC program and they sing songs, learn some basic health and hygiene information and learn about God's love through a five-colored bracelet. They laugh at our rendition of the Good Samaritan story, which Jesus told to answer the question of who and how to love. And then we release them again to swarm over the playground for a few minutes. We play with them, and there is joy, laughter, freedom, in the air as we hurtle down the slide, piling on top of each other in a heap, getting up and running around to do it again. Then the program is over and the moms who had also gathered lead their children home. Soon the orphanage will be full of more children who currently live with relatives and friends, dispersed precariously throughout the community. Before they leave we say a prayer, of thanks for this new life, new color and new hope for these children.

Teaching the kids a new song.
Teaching the kids a new song.
Karen and Bashir explain the skit, the story of the Good Samaritan.
Karen and Bashir explain the skit, the story of the Good Samaritan.

But there is more new life in Kobani, springing directly from the aftermath of ISIS's destruction – like those seeds that need heat to burst open, the seed of the gospel has sprung up in the heat of ISIS's hate. In this new and recovering Kobani, there are new Christians as well, representing two churches. After our GLC program, we met with members of both gatherings in a small upstairs room. One of these churches started with the revelation of Jesus in the heart of one man, around ten years ago. A Muslim, he realized praying in the mosque one day, and seeing the people at prayer, that their hearts were not touched; they were saying words but experiencing no life. This shook him and he cried out to God to show him the truth. Soon after he had a dream in which he was transported to Israel, invited into someone's house for a meal and met a robed and hooded figure who touched him with a sword, once on each shoulder and then his head. As he looked up at the figure, half of the face was revealed – and it was shining like gold, with a penetrating and beautiful eye unlike anything he had ever seen. He knew: Jesus was revealing Himself. This man became a believer, but without a church or other Christians, only in his own heart.

That is, until ISIS came.

Then he, along with many from Kobani, fled to Turkey. In the refugee camps there, believers found each other and other Christians came to bring aid and encouragement. People's faith grew, churches formed – and now they have returned to Kobani. One group meets in the upstairs of that man's house. The other has its own building and this where we met them. Several crosses are the only decorations on the white walls of the room where we all sit on mats on the floor. We share a little bit and then the singing begins. One of the men has a traditional Kurdish guitar and they sing a prayer accompanied by guitar and drum. Then a young woman in the group grabs a guitar and sings a duet with the girl sitting next to her, a worship song in Kurdish. Then they sing another. And another. Sahale and Suuzanne sing an English worship song. And we all sing "Shout to the Lord" together, in Kurdish and English. We close our time with prayer – and they invite us to stay the night in their church. It's a welcome warm shelter, with hot water and a kitchen. As we settle in, we are gifted with another vivid splash of color to cap our day in Kobani: they bring in overflowing platters of fruit – apples, bananas, kiwis, oranges.

New Syrian Christians sing a prayer with traditional Kurdish guitar.
New Syrian Christians sing a prayer with traditional Kurdish guitar.

The next morning they arrive early and serve us breakfast. We leave them with prayer, supplies of Christian material and some financial help. We take away hearts full of gratitude, hope and renewed faith in God's redemptive, resurrection power. Kobani, once an international symbol of the evil and darkness mankind is willing to wreak on itself, is rising again, and this time with a small light glowing at its heart.

Thanks for helping us be here, God bless you,

Dave, family, team, and Bashir in Syria

 

Our group with believers from both churches.
Our group with believers from both churches.
Suu at the new Kobani playground.
Suu at the new Kobani playground.

Love one another
Unite for freedom, justice and peace
Forgive and do not hate each other
Pray with faith, Act with courage
Never surrender

The Free Burma Rangers’ (FBR) mission is to provide hope, help and love to internally displaced people inside Burma, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Using a network of indigenous field teams, FBR reports on human rights abuses, casualties and the humanitarian needs of people who are under the oppression of the Burma Army. FBR provides medical, spiritual and educational resources for IDP communities as they struggle to survive Burmese military attacks.

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Weekly Highlights: Voluntary, Safe and Dignified Return Requires More than Infrastructure

    

 

Voluntary, Safe and Dignified Return Requires More than Infrastructure

Rohingya refugees walk at Jamtoli camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Jan. 22. / Reuters

 

 

In recent weeks, the Myanmar[1] Government has engaged in a charm offensive, leading diplomatic delegations on tours to inspect newly-built "repatriation centers" and to demonstrate the process of issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs). These tours appear to be an attempt to convince the international community of Myanmar's preparedness to accept returning Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. The formal repatriation process continues to move slowly forward, as Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan presented his Myanmar counterpart with a list of 8,032 Rohingya names to be verified on 15 February, 2018, for the first set of returns.

Most Rohingya interviewed in international media and by human rights groups have clearly stated that they will not agree to return without full citizenship, better guarantees for their security, legal redress for the abuses they suffered, and the restitution of their land and property, when possible, and compensation where not possible. Preparations for return thus far in Myanmar have not addressed any of those conditions, leading Rohingya community leaders to protest in January 2018 against the commencement of repatriation under the Myanmar-Bangladesh 2017 agreement. Echoing these concerns in his briefing to the UN Security Council in February 2018, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees summarized the current situation: "Conditions are not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. … The construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation."

Despite diplomatic efforts through tours and bilateral meetings with Bangladeshi officials, the Myanmar Government has been unable to cover up the scale of the destruction, violence and underlying hostility toward Rohingya that will make sustainable return and reintegration almost impossible as currently conceived. Commenting after a visit to northern Rakhine State, Bob Rae, Canadian Special Envoy to Myanmar, said "It will take a much more sustained approach on the part of the government of Myanmar, and a demonstrated willingness to take on extremist elements that are clearly opposed to the return of the Rohingya and their integration with full citizenship and human rights in Myanmar." Without addressing this rejection of Rohingya citizenship, and overall dehumanization of Rohingya, no repatriation can be safe or sustainable.

Of particular concern is continued impunity for and denial of international crimes committed by security forces who are still present in Rakhine State and who remain a serious risk. Furthermore, any returning Rohingya will also face a local population increasingly radicalized by incendiary reporting, speeches and statements by the Myanmar Army, political and religious leaders, risking further attacks and discrimination.

National Verification Cards (NVCs) are another sticking point in the repatriation process. The Myanmar Government holds them up as a quick, relatively simple documentation process that the government claims will lead to citizenship in the future for those eligible. On the other hand, many Rohingya doubt the intentions of the government in providing this temporary identification, which does not indicate the duration of its validity, and that comes with few rights, strict restrictions on movement and other essential freedoms, and no guarantees of future citizenship. The cards also do not specify ethnicity or religion, leading many Rohingya to see this form of the NVC as another way to erase their identity. It is also important to note that many Rohingya had official identification before fleeing, despite decades-long institutionalized discrimination that deprived them of citizenship, and that many qualify for citizenship even under the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, making NVCs a redundant and discriminatory step in repatriation. White cards, similar temporary documentation granted by the government in the past, were rescinded in 2015 in exchange for another "citizenship verification process" that in practice has resulted in citizenship for very few people, contributing to a lack of trust in promises of future recognition of citizenship.

In addition to physical safety, return of Rohingya property seems unlikely at this point, at least in the near future. Photos taken from the air by EU Ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt rendered visible the extent of the physical devastation to the Rohingya population, showing that recently-burned villages had now been completely bulldozed. Erasing all traces of Rohingya from their ancestral lands, including destruction of mosques, schools and other community sites, can easily be interpreted as an attempt to remove them entirely from the landscape, which forms an important part of Rohingya identity. Meanwhile, the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State, the government's main focal point for addressing the repatriation process, is a public-private partnership with the presence of many formerly-sanctioned business tycoons closely linked to military elites. This raises concerns that business interests will take precedence over the rights of Rohingya and other affected civilians.


On 26 February 2018, the EU Foreign Affairs Council will meet to discuss Myanmar. This is a chance for the EU to take a step in the right direction and take concrete action that will provide accountability for those most responsible for such crimes against humanity. In a statement after its recent visit to Rakhine State, a delegation from the European Parliament led by the Subcommittee on Human Rights called for "an independent international investigation into the mass atrocities" in Rakhine State, "in order to ensure accountability and end impunity." The EU Foreign Affairs Council should build on this push for accountability by imposing individual financial sanctions and visa bans, as called for in an open letter by 21 civil society organizations inside and outside Myanmar. These measures would demonstrate that, despite enormous challenges to criminal accountability in the short-term, the world will not let such serious crimes pass without consequence. Individual sanctions and visa bans from the EU would build on efforts from other states, such as following the recent example of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which announced sanctions against Maj-Gen Maung Maung Soe, the same individual targeted by US sanctions in December 2017, shortly after Special Envoy Rae's visit to Rakhine State. While a welcome first step toward accountability, imposing sanctions on one person, especially one who has already been discharged from duty by the same institution continuing to commit crimes with impunity will be merely a token measure and will not stop the violence on the ground, let alone hold accountable those most responsible.

Furthermore, the abuses and violence suffered by the Rohingya are part of a decades-long institutionalized pattern of abuses that cannot be solved through a solely technical approach to repatriation logistics. The EU and its counterparts must look past physical infrastructure and pressure the Myanmar government to take substantial steps to resolve the legitimate concerns of Rohingya refugees and ensure carefully calculated conditions are in place before commencing repatriation. This must include addressing the deeply-entrenched trauma the Rohingya population has endured, and taking other measures to build trust. Most important of all is for the Myanmar Government to listen to the voices of the Rohingya refugees, treating them with respect and dignity as equal human beings. Until the Myanmar Government and security forces can earn the trust of Rohingya refugees, voluntary return will not be possible.

 


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.

 

 

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About Progressive Voice

 

Progressive Voice is a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 the same day that Progressive Voice was formally established. For further information, please see our press release "Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice."