Myanmar: HRW condemns campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims

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Today, Human Rights Watch issued a 153-page report titled “‘All You Can Do is Pray’: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State” which accuses Myanmar to wage a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims.

The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority living in Rakhine, were persecuted by the army during the country’s authoritarian rule. Rakhine’s Buddhists regard the Rohingya as intruders and illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. And so do the government and Burmese society. 

The report blames local Buddhist monks and ultra-nationalist movement Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) for orchestrating the violence, and points the finger at Burmese authorities for standing by. According to the Rights group, the coordinated attacks against Muslim neighbourhoods began in June 2012 following sectarian violence between Arakanese and Rohingya. Since then the Arakanese attacked Muslim villages with machetes, guns and Molotov cocktails. They killed residents before burying some in mass graves. The aim of these coordinated attacks was to forcibly remove Rohingya Muslims from the area

In a statement, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, not only condemned the forcible removal of more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims but made it clear that the government denies aid and restricts the movement of the community. Displaced victims have found refuge in IDP camps where living conditions are at their worse. HRW accuses the government of denying them adequate humanitarian aid and access to livelihoods: ““The problem with aid delivery in Arakan State is not a failure of coordination, but a failure of leadership by the government to allow displaced Muslims access to aid and freedom of movement,” stated Robertson.

Again we there were warning signs. According the HRW, the RNDP started encouraging violence and promoting ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims last June by distributing pamphlets and public statements demonizing the community. Further more government statements refer to Rohungya Muslims as “Bengali,” “so-called Rohingya,” and “kalar”, a derogatory term for Muslim. The report also provides clear evidence of violence and destruction thanks to satellite images.

Human Rights Watch calls for an independent international commission to investigate the violence and urged the country’s partners’ to act.  

Meanwhile, presidential spokesman and Myanmar’s deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut described the report as “one side.”

This week the European Union was due to decide whether or not to lift the sanctions on Myanmar. HRW believes that scrapping the sanctions would be premature, considering the current situation. Just a few hours ago however, the EU gave its green light and agreed to lift all economic sanctions, also the arms embargo remains. The EU described the decision as a “new chapter” in EU-Burmese relations: “”In response to the changes that have taken place and in the expectation that they will continue, the council has decided to lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms.”

In North America, the U.S. suspended sanctions last year and US companies are allowed to invest. A year ago Canada eased its economic sanctions against Burma as well and a Canadian delegation visited Myanmar in February. After 25 years of almost no contact between Canada and Myanmar, Minister Baird decided to establish an Embassy in Burma and Canada’s first-ever resident Ambassador, Mark McDowell, was appointed in March, 2013.

Why kind of message does this send to the government of Myanmar and to the perpetrators of violence? Sure Myanmar and President Thein Sein’s government, long a dictatorship, have undergone a rather remarkable transition since 2011. But sectarian violence and tensions continue and have, it seems gotten worse. We ignored the warning signs, what can regional and international organizations, as well as new investors, do to prevent more violence from bring committed?

More on this soon…

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