Sarah Champion Speaks in Parliament About the Treatment of the Rohingya in Burma

I am grateful to my honourable Friend from Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for securing this necessary debate and for the vital work that she has done in raising awareness of the persecution of the Rohingya.

Sadly this abuse is not new.

In 1992, my right honourable Friends, the Members for Islington North and Hackney North & Stoke Newington signed an EDM criticising the “systematic extermination” of the Rohingya in Burma.

25 years later, the extermination continues.

In August this year, the Burmese military used attacks on police stations by Rohingya insurgents as a pretext for launching their latest wave of violence.

The most recent UN report contains witness statements detailing shocking acts of violence and humiliation:

  • Children and elderly burnt in their homes.
  • Mass use of gang-rape, including soldiers’, gang-raping girls as young as five.
  • Victims, including children, forced to watch relatives and loved ones tortured and killed.
  • A pregnant woman raped, her stomach cut open , her unborn baby killed, and her nipples cut off.

More than 540,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, taking the total now in Bangladesh to over 800,000.

Refugees are arriving malnourished or injured, having travelled for days, crossing rivers, rice fields, and jungles.

Sickeningly, Amnesty International have said that there are indications that Burmese authorities have been deliberately targeting the Rohingya with landmines near to border crossing points.

Once in Bangladesh, the Rohingya face desperate conditions in camps.

UNICEF have warned that, I quote:

“Given the current population density and poor sanitation and hygiene conditions, any outbreak of cholera or acute watery diarrhoea, which are endemic in Bangladesh, could kill thousands.”

UNICEF estimate that nearly 80% of new arrivals are children and women; including new-born babies and pregnant and lactating mothers. Nearly half of the pregnant women have not received medical care and some have now lost their babies.

The Secretary of State for International Development has said that children are at risk of sexual violence and trafficking and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said that there are reports of girls in Rohingya camps being raped or abused when going to the toilet or collecting firewood.

Mr Speaker, there are those that suggest there are two sides to this story.

That paramilitary attacks mean the Rohingya are to blame for the violence.

Mr Speaker, nothing can ever justify the horrors that innocent Rohingya are suffering.

The UN report contains a witness statement of a 12-year-old Rohingya girl.

She told the UN team:

(They) surrounded our house and started to shoot. It was a situation of panic – they shot my sister in front of me, she was only seven years old. She cried and told me to run. I tried to protect her and care for her, but we had no medical assistance on the hillside and she was bleeding so much that after one day she died. I buried her myself.”

A 12-year-old girl, Mr Speaker.

If a proportional response existed, this could never be it.

The UN reports that villages were destroyed in, I quote; “a well-organised, coordinated, and systematic manner”.

This suggest a level of planning that undermines any claim that operations were a spontaneous response to paramilitary attacks.

The UN report also stated that:

“Security forces targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership, and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.”

This is planned, coordinated, ethnic cleansing.

I am pleased and relieved that the Secretary of State has echoed the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights in describing it that way.

Strong language is needed, but we also need strong action.

The Director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) has called ethnic cleansing a “euphemism for genocide”. She adds that genocide is a process that takes place over many years.   In 2015, the organisation described the violence towards Rohingya as “highly organised and genocidal in intent”.

I appreciate that a declaration of genocide is not to be taken lightly as it comes with an obligation on the international community to prevent and punish.

However, the Bangladeshi government has already called this a genocide.

So can I ask the Minister, if the UN finds that genocide or other violations of international law have been committed, will the British government support a referral to the international criminal court?

Over nearly half a century the Rohingya have had their citizenship and their identity systematically stripped from them; they have been forced from their homes, their villages and livelihoods have been destroyed; they have been scapegoated and stigmatised; they have been raped and they have been murdered.

The international community has failed the Rohingya for too long.

Yesterday the Foreign Secretary had the opportunity to lead on this in a meeting of EU Foreign Affairs Council.

Sadly the Foreign Secretary’s eagerness to lead at home is not matched by an eagerness to lead abroad.

The only action from that meeting was the suspension of invitations to senior Burmese military officers to visit the EU.

I agree with Burma Campaign UK that this is absolutely pathetic.

We must do everything in our power to protect the Rohingya and pressure the Burmese government to immediately cease military operations.

We must ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the Annan Commission, particularly on the matter of citizenship rights.

We must listen to aid agencies and ensure that resources are available to distribute food, to reduce the threat of disease, and to help establish protection services for women and children.

We must pressure the Burmese authorities to allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to Rakhine State.

Fundamentally, we must no longer turn a blind eye.

I urge this house to act now, before it is too late.

Matthew Trueman