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Myanmar Accused of Dragging Feet on Rakhine Violence

WASHINGTON, Oct 26 2012 (IPS) - With a new surge in sectarian violence in western Myanmar estimated to have killed more than a hundred people in recent days, top officials in the United Nations are criticising the Myanmar government for dragging its feet on addressing the “root cause” of a conflict that could disrupt the delicate reforms process underway in the country.

“We see (the government is) not at this point taking the proper decisions towards a real solution – I don’t see a real analysis of the situation,” Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told journalists Thursday after handing over a new report to the General Assembly.

“Those decisions that are needed to be taken immediately to control the situation, to start addressing the root causes of the situation, have not been taken.” He noted that the situation in Rakhine is “quite different from the other ethnic minority areas in Myanmar”.

Rioting between Buddhist and Muslim communities in five townships of western Rakhine state broke out again on Sunday and continued through most of the week, though on Friday reports suggested that intervention by security personnel had achieved a forced calm.

Although the official figure of those killed this week was ratcheted down on Friday from 112 to 67 (along with 95 killed and more than 2,800 homes burned), such numbers would still put the new violence on par with clashes that initially broke out in June.

That episode, said to have been started by the rape of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya youths, left at least 90 people dead and more than 3,000 homes destroyed. It is not yet clear what reignited rioting this week.

“These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence,” Isabelle Arradon, Asia-Pacific deputy director for Amnesty International, a rights watchdog, said Friday.

The new round of violence was also deplored on Thursday and Friday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as the U.S. and E.U. governments. Washington recently announced a 2.7-million-dollar contribution towards the displaced of Rakhine, shortly after the conclusion of the first U.S.-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue, which reportedly focused extensively on Rakhine.

“Obviously there are deeply felt tensions and religious tensions here, but at the root of this problem is the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that plagues both communities in Rakhine state,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Thursday. “So over the longer term, it’s going to be a matter of the government providing a better quality of life for both communities there.”

Stymied inquiry

Since June, nearly 80,000 people have been living in refugee camps that many allege have openly discriminated against the Muslim minority Rohingya community, a group that is officially stateless in Myanmar. The government moved quickly to impose its writ over northern Rakhine, refusing to allow the media, international observers or even international aid into the area.

In a generally praised move, President Thein Sein, seen as the architect of the country’s recent reforms process, did set up an investigative committee tasked with looking into the violence. While that committee is slated to present a report in mid-November, Quintana noted Thursday that it now appears the document will be postponed.

“I have been informed that the committee is facing obstacles in conducting its work,” Quintana told a committee of the General Assembly. “I hope the committee will address the underlying causes of the conflict, in particular the impact of deep-rooted prejudices and discriminatory attitudes based on ethnicity and religion.”

In a little-noticed opening on Sunday, President Thein Sein did announce that his government would relax its ban on international aid for the Rohingya, noting, “If we do not accept the humanitarian assistance, (the international community) will say we are not human.”

This move will be widely lauded. But Quintana’s new report, which is not yet publicly available, warns that little will come of government or international action without taking steps to address the root causes of the tension in Rakhine, where the recent violence only hints at long-simmering frustrations.

Quintana, who visited northern Rakhine in 2010, says even then he was able to foresee the communal clashes that would eventually surface in June of this year.

Endemic discrimination

Even the Myanmar government has implicitly acknowledged that its response in Rakhine has been hamstrung. “There are persons and organisations who are conducting manipulation in the incidents in Rakhine state behind the scene,” President Thein Sein’s office said in a statement on Thursday, noting that the “international community is watching ongoing progress in Myanmar with interest.”

Yet broad structural changes should be within its reach. In order to address the “endemic discrimination” suffered by the Rohingya community, Quintana’s report makes clear that the government must revisit the 1982 law that voided Rohingya citizenship.

Myanmar’s incremental opening up in recent months not only has gone unfelt by the Rohingya, but has increased the opportunity for long-festering inter-communal tensions to be more publicly aired.

Local reports suggest an explosion in anti-Rohingya slurs and propaganda on the Internet and social media sites, further exacerbated by a perceived prejudice on the part of the international community’s focus on the Rohingya amidst broad and grinding poverty.

In a stark reversal following decades of military oppression, many Rohingya have been telling human rights organisations that they now feel safer in the presence of state security forces than around the local Buddhist neighbours with whom they have lived for decades.

In this, Quintana points to a worrying increase in specifically inter-religious tension.

“We’re seeing demonstrations on the streets, against the United Nations and against the Rohingya … even monks have participated,” Quintana noted. “Somehow, a problem that was not necessarily a religious problem – with these demonstrations, religion now starts playing a role in all of this. And that becomes dangerous.”

 
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