Bloomberg News

UN Calls for Bangladesh to Protect Victims of Myanmar Clashes

June 12, 2012

The United Nations refugee agency called for Bangladesh to welcome Muslim Rohingyas fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar after reports that border guards had denied them entry.

“UNHCR is advocating with the Bangladeshi authorities to allow safe haven on its territory for those who need immediate safety and medical assistance,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement today. Myanmar declared a state of emergency two days ago in western Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh, in a bid to end rioting and arson attacks.

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein warned in a national address that uncontrolled violence may hamper the goverment’s ability to proceed with democratic reforms that prompted the U.S. and European Union to suspend sanctions this year.

Moves toward greater political freedom after about five decades of military rule have attracted investors to Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest nations. The outbreak of violence in Rakhine underscores the challenge of unifying a country of 64 million people with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, a list that excludes the Rohingyas.

The unrest began after an alleged rape prompted a mob of about 300 Rakhine Buddhists to murder 10 Muslims on June 3, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Myanmar imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in four towns in Rakhine and prohibited more than five people from gathering in public areas, according to the New Light of Myanmar.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an immediate halt to the clashes, while reiterating support for the country’s shift to democracy.

Violence ‘Spiraling’

The U.S. is “deeply concerned” and “urges all parties to exercise restraint and immediately halt all attacks,” Clinton said in a statement yesterday. “The situation in Rakhine state underscores the critical need for mutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups and for serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation,” she said.

The government’s moves to quell the violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas and bring aggressors to justice have been inadequate, Human Rights Watch said.

“Deadly violence in Arakan State is spiraling out of control under the government’s watch,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, using another name for Rakhine state. “Opening the area to independent international observers would put all sides on notice that they were being closely watched.”

Bangladesh border guards and the nation’s coastguard yesterday prevented 500 Rohingya Muslims from entering the country in 11 boats, Major Shafiqur Rahman said. Most were women and children who traveled for as long as nine hours and lacked food and water, he said by phone yesterday.

‘Spillover’

“We didn’t see any refugees in the morning,” he said in a separate conversation today. “Probably, they got the message that we are not allowing them in. Still, we are on alert.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar “enjoy the best of relations” and “are maintaining close consultations to ensure that developments in the Rakhine state do not have any transboundary spillover,” Bangladesh foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Monirul Islam Kabir said in a statement today.

China supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard stability in Rakhine state, Xinhua reported today, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin. U.K. Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne on June 10 called for restraint and urged British citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Rakhine state, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.

Rohingyas, Sunni Muslims who are descended from Arab traders, are prevented from obtaining citizenship and traveling freely throughout the country, according to Human Rights Watch. About 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar and 200,000 are in Bangladesh, the group estimates.

In the early 1990s, Bangladesh forcibly repatriated about 50,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar, also known as Burma, before the two countries allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to observe the process, according to Human Rights Watch. From 2006 to 2010, 920 have been resettled to third countries, mostly to Canada, Australia and the U.K., according to the UNHCR.

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net; Arun Devnath in Dhaka at adevnath@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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