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Human Rights

Communal Violence Threatens Democratic Change in Myanmar

WASHINGTON, Jun 13 2012 (IPS) - The outbreak over the past week of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State seriously threatens the ongoing reform process in Myanmar, according to experts here.

The violence, whose death toll currently stands at more than 20, constitutes a major test not only for the government, which Monday ceded power to the military by declaring a state of emergency in the western coastal state.

It also poses a major challenge to Myanmar’s indigenous democracy movement, according to some human rights activists who have supported the movement.

“It’s been a very disappointing week,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “There have been too many leaders of Burma’s democracy movement who’ve added to the tension as opposed to working to alleviate it.”

The United States, which recently began rolling back long-standing economic sanctions against Myanmar as part of a broader Western effort to encourage the reform process launched over the past year by the government of President Thein Sein, said it was “deeply concerned” about the violence in a statement issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday.

“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 in Burma,” she said, using the official U.S. government name for the Southeast Asian nation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which called Tuesday for Bangladesh to open its borders to refugees fleeing Myanmar, warned that the violence “is spiralling out of control under the government’s watch”. It expressed concern about the military’s enhanced powers in the state and called for opening the area to independent international observers.

“Influential government such as the U.S., Japan, Australia, and members of the European Union should continue to press for full civilian control over the military and building the rule of law, instead of giving up all its leverage at a moment when the reform process has barely begun,” the New York-based group said in an implicit reproach for the recent lifting of sanctions.

The reported rape and murder of a 27-year-old Buddhist woman in late May apparently sparked the violence. The police subsequently detained three Muslim men and resisted calls by Buddhist mobs to hand them over.

Following the distribution in the area of inflammatory leaflets against Muslims, who are often called Rohingyas in Myanmar, one mob attacked a bus and beat 10 Muslim passengers to death on Jun. 3.

Inter-communal violence, particularly in the state’s largest city, Sittwe, has intensified since, despite the president’s establishment of a commission of inquiry and the declaration of a state of emergency.

Rohingya Muslims have long suffered severe discrimination in Myanmar where they have been widely regarded as “Bengalis” – that is, immigrants from Bangladesh – despite their having lived in Myanmar for generations.

Much of the resentment against the Rohingyas can be traced back to the colonial period, when the British authorities encouraged immigration of Muslims and other groups to Burma either as minor officials, as part of a commercial class, or as indentured labourers, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Since the 1960s, successive military governments have launched campaigns to expel them from the country, which is predominantly Buddhist. In 1982, almost all Rohingyas were denied citizenship and excluded from the census the following year.

Some 800,000 Rohingyas are believed to live in Myanmar, where, among other restrictions, they must gain official permission to travel beyond their villages, to practice certain professions, attend school, or receive health services. Another 200,000 Rohingyas live in Bangladesh, many of them refugees who were forced to flee Myanmar.

In a statement Tuesday, ICG suggested that the recent violence could be attributed in part to the ongoing reform process itself. “It is not uncommon that when an authoritarian state loosens its grip, old angers flare up and spread fast,” it said.

While rights groups here have been critical of the government’s decision to send in the military, which has historically committed serious abuses against Rohingyas, they have welcomed Thein Sein’s statements against sectarian divisions.

“The situation could deteriorate and extend beyond Rakhine state if we are killing each other with such sectarianism, endless hatred, the desire for vengeance and anarchy,” he said in a nationally televised address in which he declared the state of emergency. “…If that happens, make no mistake, it would cause a severe loss to our fledgling democracy – stability and development.”

The main opposition leader, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who met with Muslim leaders early in the crisis, has also called for reconciliation and non-violence.

“The majority have to be more compassionate and more understanding,” she was quoted as saying. “I want Burma to be a country where people from every race and religion feel secure.”

But Quigley told IPS that Suu Kyi’s message “has so far been drowned out by the folks (within the opposition) who want to get into the historical issue of religions and nationality in Burma”.

“Will (opposition leaders) support religious freedom and human rights for all, or will a racist agenda dominate (the movement’s) discourse, as it has during the past week?” she asked. “Suu Kyi has so far been an exception to the rule.”

Some analysts have suggested that the current crisis have may been stoked by government hard-liners eager to discredit Suu Kyi who last week, on her trip abroad in more than 20 years, advised foreign investors against “reckless optimism” regarding the country’s reform process.

“I don’t think they orchestrated any of this, but I think they see it as an opportunity to force her to take a position where will either be weak on human rights by not supporting the Rohingyas or come out strong for their human rights in which case she will alienate some of her supporters,” according to Quigley.

Rights activists expressed greatest concern about the decision by the U.N. to withdraw its staff from Rakhine State – thus effectively reducing the number of international observers – and by the likely anti-Rohingya prejudice of the military that has been charged with stopping the violence.

“Who are these troops?” asked T. Kumar, international advocacy director for the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International. “How can you expect them to protect these communities when the Burmese official media is calling Rohingyas terrorists?”

“Given the Burmese army’s brutal record of abuses in Arakan (Rakhine) State, putting the military in charge of law enforcement could make matters worse,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson. “The government needs to be protecting threatened communities, but without any international presence there, there’s a real fear that won’t happen.”

Amnesty’s Kumar also stressed that the current crisis constitutes a serious test of the entire reform process and those, like the U.S. and other Western countries, that have promoted it.

“The U.S. authorities and Suu Kyi should take this as a wake-up call to find a permanent solution to Rohingyas, especially giving them full citizenship. Unless that happens, the whole reform process that people are talking about in Burma becomes effectively meaningless,” he told IPS.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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