Author: Matthew Smith
Published by: Asia Times Online

BANGKOK – Myanmar’s President Thein Sein travels to London and Paris this week, where he will meet British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Now that decades-long European Union economic sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted – with the exception of an arms embargo – trade and investment are expected to dominate the agenda. 

But the focus should not be on trade and investment alone. Western leaders have a responsibility to address ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar. For a start, they should pressure Thein Sein to bring an immediate end to abuses against Muslims

in Rakhine State and call separately for an independent, international investigation into ongoing abuses occurring there. 

Myanmar’s failure to effectively address abuses in Rakhine State has had a pernicious effect, paving the way for the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment and state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence. In March, suspiciously well-orchestrated attacks against Muslims – sparked by trivial altercations – erupted in four townships in Mandalay Region and eight townships in Pegu Region, displacing more than 12,000 Muslims and killing scores, including a massacre of 36 mostly teenagers in the small town of Meiktila. It later spread to Lashio in Shan State. In each case, security forces failed to intervene. 

As the author of two recent Human Rights Watch reports on the situation in Rakhine State, “The Government Could Have Stopped This” and “All You Can Do is Pray”, I documented how Rohingya and Kaman Muslim men, women, and children were killed in savage attacks in June and October 2012, at times directly supported by state security forces. In some cases, my research found, unidentified victims were buried in mass graves. 

Entire villages and neighborhoods were razed in 13 of Rakhine State’s 17 townships. Nearly 140,000 mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims were forcibly displaced from their homes and villages and remain living in deplorable conditions with limited access to adequate humanitarian aid. 

While Rakhine Buddhists also suffered losses, particularly in June last year, Muslim communities overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the violence and abuse. Since the smoke cleared in Rakhine State last October, the Myanmar government has so far taken insufficient steps to investigate the crimes, hold accountable those who are responsible, or to prevent future outbreaks of violence. 

By the government’s own admission, at least 75% of those arrested in Rakhine State since June have been Muslims; no government officials, monks, or security forces have been arrested. Likewise, while 25 Buddhists were sentenced last week for their roles in anti-Muslim violence in Meiktila, there were no government officials or state security forces among them. 

Predictably without justice served, human rights violations continue with impunity. For instance, credible and underreported cases of rape and sexual violence against Rohingya women by military forces have in recent months have been brought discreetly to the attention of the Myanmar authorities and to members of the international community. 

This includes unconfirmed, disturbing allegations from various sources on the ground that several women are potentially being held against their will by a military battalion outside the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, in a situation of sexual slavery. No meaningful investigation has taken place and no one has been held accountable for sexual abuse. Worse, the women may still be at risk. 

Other violent abuses by the state continue to go unpunished. Three displaced Muslim women were shot and killed on June 4 by security forces in Mrauk-U Township, the seat of Rakhine State’s ancient and former capital city. They were killed while resisting involuntary relocations. Two more displaced Rohingya men were killed on June 27 by security forces in the township of Pauktaw, also while resisting relocations. 

There has been no accountability, and the government has gone so far as to defend the behavior of security forces without any meaningful investigation, claiming the use of lethal force (against unarmed, internally displaced women and men) was justified. At the same time, Thein Sein’s government is imposing a blanket policy of segregation in Rakhine State. 

Displaced Rohingya remain confined under armed guard to squalid internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and non-displaced Muslims are confined to their towns and neighborhoods, severely affecting Muslim livelihoods. Rather than ensure the displaced population’s right to return home, the authorities have relocated some IDPs to isolated, barren locations far from their homes and work and where outsiders are forbidden from visiting. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Rohingya are still denied adequate humanitarian aid, including shelter, latrines, and access to safe water. Nearly half of the 80 Muslim IDP camps throughout the state lack access to any health services. The United Nations recently reported “alarming rates of severe acute malnutrition” among the displaced, and aid agencies are still obstructed from transferring Muslims in need of medical care to nearby state-run Buddhist hospitals, which largely deny Muslims treatment as a matter of policy. 

Displaced children have lost an entire year of education – a fact that has generated little international concern – and last month minister of immigration and population Khin Yi publicly endorsed a discriminatory two-child policy for Muslims in two townships in Rakhine State. International outrage was short-lived, despite the fact that the policy has been enforced since 2005 and Thein Sein has still not condemned it. Children born in violation of the two-child policy are treated as if they do not exist. 

There is also the thorny issue of citizenship. Nearly all Rohingya are denied citizenship through a discriminatory 1982 law. Despite media and diplomatic criticism, the government has shown no sign that it intends to bring the law in line with international standards. Moreover, Rohingya face tightened restrictions, many of which have been in place for decades, on movement, education, employment, marriage, religion, and a host of other areas that affect their daily livelihoods. 

Rather than endure the persecution, a conservative estimate of 35,000 Rohingya men, women, and children have fled Myanmar by sea since June 2012, landing on the unwelcoming shores of Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. At least hundreds have died at sea trying to make the crossing in small, ill-equipped, and overcrowded boats. 

Those who have successfully made the journey are at risk of being pushed back to sea by abusive state authorities, corralled into overcrowded and inhumane detention facilities, or taken into the dubious custody of illicit trafficking networks that promise safe passage to more desirable destinations. Speaking to hundreds of displaced Rohingya in Rakhine State last year, most were undaunted by the well-known perils at sea and beyond. “The danger cannot be worse than what we are living with here,” said one Rohingya man. 

Market myopia

Some members of the international community – and of Myanmar’s own government – believe that market-based solutions will ultimately prevail in Rakhine State. The hope is that Buddhist and Muslim communities will eventually peacefully integrate out of economic necessity. However, as there are currently no indications that authorities will permit displaced Rohingya to return home or grant them basic human rights, this position is deeply out of touch with reality. 

In the last year, numerous ethnic Rakhine explained to this writer that they felt they could no longer live with Muslims in the state, with many adding that they would be willing to shoulder any economic burdens that might accompany state-sponsored expulsion of Muslims, along with their labor and local trading. Muslims pose an existential threat to their families, their culture, and their livelihoods, they said. In other words, economic necessity appears to be no match for ethno-religious nationalism, particularly in a culture of impunity where violent “solutions” are viable options. 

Moreover, most Rakhine have long viewed the Rohingya as a monolithic group of “Bengali” interlopers from Bangladesh, intent on waging an anti-Buddhist war or at least spreading fundamentalist Islam. “They want to spread Islam everywhere,” one Rakhine man in Mrauk-U said. “We can’t accept that. The government is trying to control this problem.” A 32-year-old displaced Rakhine mother of two, who fled her home amid the violence last June, added: “As long as the Bengali [Rohingya] people are staying here, I will never go home.” 

A sinister whispering campaign by army soldiers and police has not helped. Soldiers have successfully spread rumors throughout Rakhine State suggesting that “every mosque” in the state is home to “boxes of weapons”, fueling unfounded beliefs that Muslim extremist organizations are hatching sophisticated plots of Buddhist destruction. 

Quite predictably, this toxic mix of ethno-religious nationalism and state-led, insidious rumor-mongering resulted in last year’s violent anti-Muslim campaigns in Rakhine State – campaigns that continue today. Rakhine political party operatives, members of the Buddhist sangha (order of monks), and even government officials have successfully led Buddhist communities in Rakhine State to isolate Muslims from food, other basic needs, and economic activities. 

“The monks came and beat the Rakhine who were secretly giving us food,” a Rohingya man from Pauktaw told me last year. “They had bamboo sticks and were beating them near our neighborhood.” 

The government knows this is still happening but has done little to intervene; indeed, in some cases authorities have directly and indirectly participated. A Rakhine Buddhist monk who spearheaded the campaign of Muslim isolation in Rakhine State in June 2012 – which was later mirrored throughout the country by the now-infamous 969 Buddhist nationalist movement – told me he was commanding the Rakhine people to “not sell anything to the Muslims or buy anything from them” and that they “must not be friendly with the Muslim people”. 

This is still viewed locally as a righteous moral response to an existential threat. Some organizations, including the Buddhist sangha in Rathedaung Township, 30 kilometers north of Sittwe, went a step further and called explicitly for “ethnic cleansing”. Their stated goal, along with most Rakhine and even members of Myanmar officialdom, was and is to remove Muslims from the state, either directly or by making life so intolerably difficult that there is no option but to flee. 

As a result of all this and the near complete lack of accountability, when violence resumed in October 2012, it was full-scale. Flames engulfed nine more townships in a coordinated campaign to violently remove Muslims from their homes and change the ethnic demographics of the state. There were killings, mass arrests, torture, and other abuses against Muslims by state security forces. Entire Muslim villages were razed and scores of mosques were either destroyed by arson or bulldozed by government officials, all visible through satellite images. 

The deadliest incident involved a massacre by mobs of armed Rakhine on October 23 in a village called Yan Thei in Mrauk-U Township, where at least 70 Rohingya were killed – 28 children were hacked to death, including 13 under age five, all buried in mass graves. 

The possibility of another wave of state-sponsored violence is very real, and Thein Sein’s government is not doing enough to prevent it. The president’s recent disbandment of Nasaka – a deeply abusive and corrupt border guard force unique to Rakhine State – was a highly positive step, but its impact on the ground remains to be seen, particularly in the absence of justice and accountability. 

The lurking driver behind the repeated atrocities in Rakhine State is a culture of impunity. Feigned attempts at accountability by the government have thus far been discriminatory and abusive: nearly all of those arrested in Rakhine State since June 2012 in connection with the violence have been Muslim. Hundreds of Muslim men and boys have been rounded up and held without charge in violent sweeps. In some cases they have been subjected to incommunicado detention, torture, and unfair trials without legal representation. Some have reportedly died in detention. 

In August last year, Thein Sein established a 27-member “investigative commission” to “reveal the truth behind the unrest” and “find solutions for communities with different religious beliefs to live together in harmony.” The commission was lauded and in various ways supported by an international community that was understandably eager to encourage avenues to domestic remedies. 

On April 29, the commission released its controversial report, which referred to the Rohingya throughout as “Bengali” – a euphemism to suggest they do not exist as a distinct ethnicity and originate from Bangladesh. While the report made constructive recommendations on humanitarian needs, it categorically failed to address abuses by state authorities during the violence and its aftermath. It also said nothing of the need for accountability for human rights violations. 

Likewise, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission – established in September 2011 by decree by Thein Sein, who appointed all of its members – conducted a mission to Rakhine State from June 27 to July 1, 2012. On July 11, 2012, the commission published its findings, which also reported no government abuses and outrageously found that all humanitarian needs in the state were being met. 

In light of this biased reporting, it is safe to say that domestic remedies have been exhausted. It is time instead for the international community to act. The UK, France, and governments around the world should unequivocally support the urgent establishment of an independent, international investigation into human rights abuses in Rakhine State. Any selective blindness to the crisis now will only reinforce conditions of impunity and inevitably lead to more death, destruction, and ethnic cleansing.

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