Time to Cool Burma’s Rapprochement

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Time to Cool Burma’s Rapprochement

With Burma’s many internal problems, are business and global leaders ignoring issues of grave concern?

Since Burma first initiated its political and economic reforms, businesses with an eye to profits and governments with a regional political strategy in mind have been gushing in their praise of Burma’s President Thein Sein.

Problems elsewhere in the country were ignored and the President’s word that his government was doing its best was enough to placate critics of his country’s never ending internal conflicts.

But the ongoing violence in Rakhine state pitting Buddhists against Muslims and Thein Sein’s rejection of outside mediation from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other interested groups is getting beyond the pale.

He’d much prefer third countries, like Australia, simply take his country’s Muslims off his hands. That’s not going to happen.

Perhaps this violence – primarily aimed at driving Muslims out of their homes and country — should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the possible removal of long standing sanctions on Burma made conditional upon its findings.

There is also the incident of a boat with 130 people on board, many of them reportedly refugees fleeing Rakhine, sinking off the coast of Bangladesh.

Some have said the fishing boat was reportedly in bad condition, overcrowded and is believed to have sunk early on Tuesday. It’s an incident with shades of Vietnam in the late 1970s when the communists would single out ethnic Chinese, march them into boats and force them to sea.

Many from the incident in the 1970s would die at the hands of Thai and Malaysian pirates. Others perished because their unseaworthy and overcrowded vessels were hit by storms while some made it to a refugee camp and eventually resettlement in a third country.

No one was ever held accountable in Vietnam, or outside, for those crimes.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says each year, hundreds of people – often a mix of those fleeing persecution in Burma and migrant workers from Bangladesh – board unseaworthy smugglers boats in the Bay of Bengal in the hope of reaching safety or finding better economic opportunities in Southeast Asia or beyond. Many of them do not make it as their often-rickety and overcrowded boats capsize in rough seas.

Between October 2011 and March 2012, the UNHCR estimated that a record high of 7,000 to 8,000 people undertook the dangerous voyage from the Bay of Bengal. From November 2011 to January this year, there were at least four reported incidents of boats that ran into technical problems, leaving more than 20 people confirmed dead and over 100 still missing.

Burmese government policies are no doubt playing a part and the number of deaths will only escalate if allowed to continue. As such, this could be an appropriate time to cool the rapprochement with Burma, refer crimes committed against the country’s Muslims to the ICC and in doing so provide Thein Sein with a real incentive to get his house in order.