News / Asia

Burma's Investigation of Sectarian Violence Criticized

A Rohingya Muslim with the word
A Rohingya Muslim with the word "Rohingya" written on his T-shirt prays with others at a makeshift mosque at a camp for those displaced by violence, near Sittwe April 28, 2013.
Daniel Schearf
A government-appointed commission in Burma looking into last year’s deadly sectarian fighting in western Rakhine state has recommended doubling security and assimilating Muslim minorities. But, rights activists are criticizing the commission for failing to hold accountable those responsible for the violence, including - they say - security forces and Buddhist extremists.

Fighting between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in June and October left 200 people dead and more than 100,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims.

Since then, violence has spread to Buddhist and Muslim communities across the country, leading to concerns of deepening sectarian divisions.

Accountability

Following international concern about the Rakhine violence, Burma’s president appointed a commission to investigate. On Monday, it issued a report that listed a series of measures including doubling security forces, despite allegations that some troops took part in the violence.

Human Rights Watch blames security forces, government officials and Buddhist monks for fomenting ethnic cleansing. The group also claims there are signs that the Muslim dead have been secretly buried in mass graves.

Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said the government commission’s report largely dodged the issue of who was accountable for the violence.

"So, when you talk about doubling the size of the security forces without a commensurate increase in accountability for rights abuses, how does that help solve the problem?" he asked. "In fact, I would argue that it probably goes the wrong way."

Aung Naing Oo, a commission member who contributed to the report, acknowledged some evidence of abuse by security forces, but said it was not their job to investigate it.

"Our job’s mostly to do with why the violence took place and how the violence can be contained and how the reconciliation can be achieved, over time," Aung said.

Blame

The commission blames the unrest on historic animosities between ethnic groups in some communities. It recommends improved law enforcement, improved health care and education, as well as a ban on hate speech.  The steps are broadly aimed at assimilating the Muslim minority and promoting interaction with Buddhist communities.

But the report also emphasizes the need to keep an eye on Muslim religious schools and teachers, while making no mention of well-known Buddhist monk-led campaigns attacking Islam.

Aung Naing Oo admitted they were forced to censor parts of the public report out of fear of reaction from the Buddhist majority in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"We are very much concerned about security issues that may arise out of our report," Aung conceded. "So, some of the issues have to be, you know, reported quietly and we cannot make them public. But, we have pointed out everything and anything possible in regard to the conflict to the president of the Union of Myanmar."

The commission says a fast-growing Muslim population has contributed to tensions with the Buddhist Rakhine and recommended family planning to reduce birth rates.

Fears

Rights activist Robertson says unfounded fears about a rising Muslim population are a theme promoted by Buddhist extremists. He said such recommendations show the report is skewed in favor of views held by the majority in Rakhine, also known as Arakan.

"The points in terms of practical assistance to people on the ground in terms of education, medical services, shelter, all those points are well taken and deserve support," Robertson said. "But, when we start getting to issues of security affairs, when we start to get to issues of culture and language, it is clear that the onus is on the Rohingya as opposed to the Arakanese."

The word “Rohingya” itself does not appear in the report. Burmese Rohingya are not among the country’s recognized minorities, which has long made them vulnerable to discrimination and abuse by authorities.

Rohingya

Instead, the commission refers to Rohingya as “Bengalis.” The reference gives weight to the widespread belief in Burma that the Rohingya are illegal migrants, despite many living there for generations.

Aung Niang Oo said they had no choice but to omit the term Rohingya because it could lead to further unrest.

"This is a very explosive issue. And, our report is to avoid any bloodshed at all costs," Aung explained. "And, when you talk about ethnicity you talk about nationalism. And, when you talk about nationalism, one smells of blood. And, this is the last thing the commission wants to get involved. So, we have avoided the term 'Rohingya' at all costs."

Nearly a year later,  after the fighting that sparked Burma’s recent round of sectarian violence, more than 100,000 people remain segregated in camps, the vast majority of them Muslim Rohingya.

The report, released Monday in Rangoon, recommends they remain in camps for the time being, because communal tensions are still high.

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