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President Obama: press refugee issues in Burma
November 17, 2012

President Obama: press refugee issues in Burma
President Barack Obama boards Air Force One earlier this year in this official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

(Washington, D.C.) November 16, 2012 — Monday President Barack Obama will make history by becoming the first U.S. president to visit Burma. Ahead of his trip, Refugee Council USA, a coalition of U.S. non-governmental organizations - including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA - focused on refugee protection, delivered to the president a letter urging key issues be addressed.

RCUSA believes "significant work must still be done in order to ensure that political change in Burma becomes permanent and is responsive to communities that remain extremely vulnerable, including Burmese refugees and internally displaced persons, and members of persecuted minorities, including the Rohingya, Chin, and Kachin communities."

The text of the letter follows:

November 16, 2012

President Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama:

Your upcoming visit to Burma provides an opportunity to focus the world’s attention on the significant democratic reforms that are taking place there, as well as the tremendous opportunity these liberalization efforts afford to resolve the long-standing plight of Burmese refugees and internally displaced persons who have been forced to flee during a generation of warfare and repression. 

While the initial steps that have been taken by the Burmese government towards the creation of a more open society, and the efforts made by your administration to  encourage these changes, have been welcomed by Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) members, we nonetheless believe that significant work must still be done in order to ensure that political change in Burma becomes permanent and is responsive to communities that remain extremely vulnerable, including Burmese refugees and internally displaced persons, and members of persecuted minorities, including the Rohingya, Chin, and Kachin communities. Therefore, during your discussions in Burma, we encourage you to raise the following issues.

It is now time for dialogue to take place at the highest levels about the eventual resolution of the protracted situation of Burmese refugees in countries throughout the region, including Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. It is understood that different challenges may be faced by the distinct Burmese ethnic  groups seeking durable solutions; nonetheless,  we feel  a regional approach will be essential during this critical period in order to both meet the immediate protection and assistance needs of the refugees, while at the same time  planning for possible returns to Burma. Such an approach, which should engage not only governments in the region but international donors and organizations,  would discourage unilateral and premature return initiatives by individual host countries; support appropriate levels of assistance, which in many cases are now inadequate or rapidly decreasing; and, ensure that the time that will elapse before safe and dignified returns take place is  used to prepare the Burmese refugee communities to make informed choices about their futures and to contribute to the building of a peaceful and democratic Burma. We ask that  the United States take the initiative in organizing this regional approach, and that your administration  work in cooperation with UNHCR, host countries, donor governments, and the refugee community to make this an orderly and constructive process. 

In addition, as organizations deeply concerned about the protection of persecuted  populations, RCUSA members remain gravely troubled by the recent violence targeting Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State. We appreciate the leadership the U.S. Government has shown in condemning the ethnic and sectarian violence, and the efforts that have been made to foster durable solutions for the Rohingya, both within Burma and in the surrounding countries to which hundreds of thousands have fled. We are also pleased to learn that the situation in Rakhine State will be on the agenda during your meetings in Burma. We hope that as a result of these dialogues the Burmese government will recognize that the international community is closely watching events unfold in Rakhine State.  We believe that continuation of such political pressure will be essential to securing lasting peace for all of Burma’s ethnic groups, including the Rohingya. 

In the near term, we ask your administration to insist that humanitarian actors, including U.N. agencies and international NGOs, be given full access to assist those in need in Rakhine State. In addition, the United States should also reiterate that the involvement of Burmese border security forces, as well as that of any other government actors, in the violence is entirely unacceptable and all of the perpetrators should be brought to justice. Looking beyond the immediate crisis, the United States Government should also advocate for the amendment of the 1982 nationality law that essentially stripped the Rohingya of their most basic rights, rendering them stateless, and for coordinated economic development and humanitarian efforts that will equally benefit both Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine State. Until these fundamental issues are addressed, with the input of the affected communities informing the reconciliation processes, a sustainable peace for all of Burma will remain an elusive dream. 

In addition, the ongoing conflicts in Kachin State and Chin State also merit diplomatic attention and dialogue.  Since the ceasefire agreement in June 2011 was broken between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese army, over 70,000 civilians have been displaced from their villages.  The ongoing atrocities committed against the Kachin by the Burmese army include the use of child soldiers and land mines in combat.  Despite the ongoing dialogue between the KIA and the government’s Peace Committee, a political solution has yet to be reached. Similarly, in Chin State, the poorest state in all of Burma, there continues to be long-standing discrimination and persecution because of both the Chins’ ethnicity and religion, which has led to thousands of Chin refugees fleeing to neighboring India.  Ethnic and religious minorities in Burma, including the Rohingya, Kachin and Chin, among others, must be engaged in meaningful political dialogue and be able to participate in an open and fair political process.  They must also be afforded the same economic opportunities to develop their communities which will facilitate the eventual return of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries to Burma.   Ending ethnic conflict and including ethnic and religious minorities in ongoing reforms towards democracy will be critical to a free and stable Burma.

Refugee Council USA thanks you for the active role the U.S. Government has already played in incorporating human rights issues into dialogues with the Burmese government. We hope that these issues, including those outlined in this letter, will be highlighted during your trip and ongoing dialogue with the government of Burma. We look forward to remaining in conversation with members of your Administration following your trip and throughout what will surely be the long process of democratization in Burma.


Daniel Kosten
Chair, Refugee Council USA

Cc: The Honorable Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State
Samantha Power, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, National Security Council

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