UN envoy will ‘ring the alarm bell’ if no action on Rohingya

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 02 July 2019
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UN envoy will ‘ring the alarm bell’ if no action on Rohingya

  • Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered the Rohingya to be “Bengalis” from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations

UNITED NATIONS: The UN envoy for Myanmar said Monday that progress on alleviating the crisis that led more than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh has been slow and if there is no action it will be time to “ring the alarm bell.”
Christine Schraner-Burgener was responding to frustrated speeches and questions from many countries — from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia to the United States — on the lack of progress in returning Rohingya nearly two years after they fled a violent crackdown by Myanmar’s military.
She told the General Assembly there are “not a lot of changes on the ground,” pointing to “many challenges” including Myanmar’s civilian leaders having “to navigate an extremely difficult environment in which the military continues to have considerable political influence.”
In addition, Schraner-Burgener said, “immense complexities” inside the country have been “an impediment” in addition to the Rohingya crisis. She cited Myanmar’s 70 years of isolation, 21 armed groups still operating in the country, a lack of development, drug production and human trafficking.
She said her highest priority remains “ending the vicious cycle of discrimination and violence, especially in Rakhine,” the western state that was home to the Rohingya who fled — and where she said 128,000 displaced Rohingya languish in camps, many for nearly seven years.
As a first step, Schraner-Burgener called for more to be done to end fighting in Rakhine between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, a well-trained guerrilla force from the Buddhist ethnic group seeking autonomy for Rakhine. She said the fighting has displaced 30,000 Buddhists and Muslims.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long considered the Rohingya to be “Bengalis” from Bangladesh even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless, and they are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
The long-simmering Rohingya crisis exploded in August 2017 when Myanmar’s military launched what it called a clearance campaign in Rakhine in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The campaign led to the mass Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh and to accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.
Amnesty International accused Myanmar’s military in late May of a new round of widespread human rights violations in its battles against the Arakan Army since January 2019. The rights group said the military carried out indiscriminate killings of civilians as well as arbitrary arrests and torture, but it also said the Arakan rebels committed abuses against civilians including kidnappings though on a lesser scale.
Schraner-Burgener said the fighting involving the Arakan Army “is having a devastating impact on all local communities caught in the crossfire, independent of their religious or ethnic background.” And “it is also further impacting efforts toward the dignified, voluntary and safe return of refugees,” she said.
US deputy political coordinator Elaine French expressed deep concern that little progress has been made in improving conditions in Rakhine, “while the military’s conflict with the Arakan Army continue to escalate and civilian casualties rise by the day.”
The United States agrees with the UN that conditions aren’t conducive for Rohingya refugees to return, she said, and the government’s suspension of Internet service in Rakhine “casts further doubt on its commitment to creating conditions that allow people to feel they can live in safety and security.”
Schraner-Burgener said that while there have not been “a lot of changes on the ground ... we have to continue because we want to see people who go back have freedom of movement” and access to health and education.
She told diplomats critical of the lack of progress: “I assure you also that I need to see action on the ground. If I don’t see action, I will raise this and will also ring the alarm bell.”
In a positive step, Schraner-Burgener said Myanmar has produced a draft national strategy to close camps for displaced Rohingya with support from international experts, the UN and others. But she stressed that this must be part of a larger effort that deals with their freedom to move, get jobs and receive basic services.
Myanmar’s UN ambassador, Hau Do Suan, said the government has approved the return of about 13,000 Rohingya from Bangladesh, from two lists totaling over 30,000 Rohingya, and plans to send a high-level delegation to Cox’s Bazar to explain arrangements for repatriation.
Despite challenges involving development, human rights and security including Arakan Army attacks, he said, Myanmar is determined to continue efforts “to build peace, stability, harmony and development in Rakhine state.”


Villagers angry as Portugal wildfire still rages

A villager tries to extinguish a wildfire at the village of Chaveira, near Macao, in central Portugal on Monday, July 22, 2019. (AP)
Updated 13 min 20 sec ago
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Villagers angry as Portugal wildfire still rages

  • By evening, the fire was only 70% under control because of the strong winds and high temperatures, Civil Protection commander Pedro Nunes said, adding there were currently no homes or villages at risk

VILA DE REI/MACAO, Portugal: After more than 50 hours, firefighters were still battling a wildfire in central Portugal late on Monday, as villagers and local authorities blamed a lack of resources and government inaction for the damage caused by the flames.
So far, 39 people had been injured, including one who was in serious condition. Portugal’s Civil Protection department said some villagers had been evacuated as a precaution and houses had been destroyed.
The fire was small in comparison with a massive blaze that hit the same region in June 2017, killing 64 people and burning about 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) in a few days. That was the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history.
Data from the European Union fire-mapping service showed about 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) burned over the weekend.
Civil Protection said earlier on Monday that the fire, which broke out on Saturday afternoon, was 90% under control, but warned that the remaining blazes required “a lot of attention” as the winds whipped up later in the day, fanning the flames in tinder-dry conditions.
By evening, the fire was only 70% under control because of the strong winds and high temperatures, Civil Protection commander Pedro Nunes said, adding there were currently no homes or villages at risk.
“The worst-case scenario happened,” said Nunes. He said firefighters would adopt techniques overnight to put out the flames, including using four bulldozers provided by the armed forces.
Even though humidity is expected to remain low, the wind is set to lose strength in the early hours of Tuesday, which could help firefighters end the wildfire, Nunes added.
Covered in eucalyptus and pine trees, central Portugal is frequently hit by summer blazes, with hilly terrain making it especially difficult for firefighters to reach.

’THERE WAS NO ONE’
Villagers, as well as authorities in Macao and Vila de Rei, areas in the heart of the fire zone, said there were not enough firefighters and resources to combat the flames.
Sheep farmer Joaquim Ribeiro told Reuters there were no firefighters when the blaze arrived at his village in Macao, forcing him to transfer his animals elsewhere. “It was pandemonium.”
Another sheep farmer, Fernando Cardoso, said he rushed to a nearby fire station as the flames approached his village but the firefighters told him they could not help until given the green light.
“The fire appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “When we got here, there were flames everywhere, no place to turn, no firefighters, there was no one.”
Local authorities have also pointed the finger at Portugal’s Socialist government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
Speaking to Lusa news agency, the deputy mayor of Vila de Rei, Paulo Cesar, accused the government of not being able to prevent wildfires.
“The municipality is fed up with these successive fires linked to criminal activity and is fed up of seeing the state fail again,” he said.
Asked by reporters about the complaints, Costa said the mayors were “primarily responsible” for protecting their own municipalities from wildfires through “proper management of their territory.”
Internal Administration Minister Eduardo Cabrita said police had opened an investigation into the fires. Portugal’s judiciary police have collected evidence and artifacts that could be related to the fires’ origin, an official told Lusa news agency.
In a statement, police said a 55-year-old man was detained on suspicion of starting a blaze in the Portuguese district of Castelo Branco. But a police source, quoted by Portuguese newspaper Observador, said the detention was not related to the fires in question.
The police did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.
Civil Protection said 1,079 firefighters were on the ground, backed up by 347 firefighting vehicles.
Spain said late on Monday that it was sending two aircraft to help tackle the fires in Portugal.