In the past two years, Myanmar has undergone many positive changes. The now quasi-civilian government is making democratic reforms, especially in terms of freedom of speech. Indeed, the government has opened up to opponents and ethnic rebels. These changes have led many Western countries to lift their sanctions, and to restart economic and diplomatic ties with the former authoritarian state. Which is why Human Rights Watch’s report which accuses Buddhists, the Burmese government and local authorities of committing human rights violations and ethnic cleansing against Muslim, may have come as a surprise to some. Buddhist attacking Muslims? As a recent article by Christian Caryl recently asked “Weren’t Buddhist supposed to be pacifists?” In overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, this is not the case. As HRW states in its report, security forces simply stood by as mobs openly attacked Muslims, known as Rohingya people. More than 200 Rohingya have been killed and 125,000 have been forced to flee to disease-ridden refugee camps where humanitarian aid is scarce. The report accuses Rakhine state officials of encouraging violence and state authorities failing to intervene.
Ethnic conflicts in Myanmar have a long history as minorities have been subjected to exclusion and abuses. Minorities are regarded as second-class or invaders. The Rohingya people in Rakhine state are one of them. Even though they have been occupied the region for several centuries, they are regarded as invaders and illegal immigrants, and are therefore denied citizenship by the Myanmar government. In 2012, President Thein Sein even called for the expulsion of “illegal” Rohingya, arguing that this is the “only solution” to violence.
As part of an on-going project, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies monitors domestic (and foreign) media in Myanmar in order to provide warning signs of ethnic violence and mass atrocities. Since domestic and foreign independent media in now more active in Myanmar, the institute regularly saw reports of violence: mosques being burnt down, riots, looting, mass displacements, humanitarian aid blocked. There were also signs of hate speech with anti-Muslim pamphlets and recorded speeches being disseminated on the street and on social media such as Facebook. This is the case of the “969” campaign led by Mandalay monk named Wirathu. The segregation campaign urges Buddhists not to buy from Muslim shopkeepers because “it will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion.” Describing Muslim as “evil”, Wirathu argues that, once in power, “they will not let us practice our religion.” This kind of dehumanizing and paranoid speech is more than a warning sign. The supposed fear of the Other.
Anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim speeches do not only come from people such as Wirathu. According to Aung Zaw, a journalist and activist, another government official is disseminating hate speech on social media. Furthermore, on 20 February, Burma’s Deputy Immigration and Population Minister Kyaw Kyaw Win denied the existence of the Rohingya ethnic group in Burma. The minister’s words reflect the statement of a monk in Mandalay who stated that “there’s no such thing as Rohingya. They’re Bangladeshis. They’re brutal. They rape girls. They’re kalar.” Kalar is an insulting word ascribed to Muslims.
The government’s failure to take active steps only encourages hardliners to go further. In a televised address last month, President Thein Sein declared that he would not tolerate religious violence and would not “hesitate to use force as a last resort” in order to stop anti-Muslim violence. Yet nothing has been done. The president’s words were just a “bark” but no bite. In a year, I very much doubt that he has changed his mind that the Rohingya and Muslim groups in other provinces should simply been driven out of Myanmar.
Western countries have not pressured the government to act on this matter, even though reports of violence have long been issued by several UN agencies and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. Instead, western countries are focus on establishing stronger trade ties. Last week the European Union lifted all sanctions on Myanmar except the arms embargo. Member states congratulated the country on its “remarkable process of reform.” On Monday, President Thein Sein also received the International Crisis Group “In Pursuit of Peace” award in celebration of his democratization reforms and “decisive action towards improving Myanmar’s relations with the political opposition and liberalizing past repressive laws.”
Considering the current situation Rakhine state, but also in Kachin state where a government offensive against rebels forced 100,000 people to flee, the optimism and positive messages of Western countries appears contradictory and may send the wrong message to the Myanmar government. Even though EU Ministers noted that there were “still significant challenges to be addressed”, a better balance must be found. The ministers made not explicit mention of the report or crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya. I admit that democratic transitions take time, but Western countries, regional bodies and businesses now investing in Myanmar must pressure the government to actively prevent the on-going ethnic cleansing. Especially since it could spill over into neighbouring countries, where the Rohingya have found refuge. The government should allow humanitarian agencies to have access to IDPs and refugees, and should arrest perpetrators of violence as well as those who incite violence. Myanmar should also once and for all tackle the matter of citizenship and respect its ethnic minorities. On his first visit to Europe last month, President Thein Sein urged EU countries to lift sanctions. But economic transition should come with a real democratic transition. Right now Western countries appear more willing to leave democracy and human rights aside in favour of economic ties. The international community should not contribute to Myanmar’s perspective of the Rohingya as stateless people who do not deserve protection.