Current News

    Despite reforms, Myanmar’s ethnic violence continues

    A Muslim Rohingya man sits at his burnt home at a villaged in Minpyar in Rakhine state in October.

    Matthew Smith

    May 7, 2013

    When the European
    Union recently lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar, it closed a decades-long
    chapter designed to encourage democratic reform in the country.

    Although an arms
    embargo remains in place, the action will send an unequivocal message of
    “mission accomplished.”

    But while the EU is
    celebrating the “new Myanmar,” Rohingya Muslims in the western part
    of the country are targets in what appears to be an ongoing campaign of
    government-supported crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

    Killings and arson
    attacks between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims first erupted in
    Myanmar’s Rakhine State in June 2012, and were followed in October by
    well-coordinated attacks on Rohingya populations. More than 125,000 Rohingya
    were forced into dozens of internally displaced camps while tens of thousands
    of others fled the country, launching Southeast Asia’s newest refugee crisis.

    Satellite imagesobtained by Human Rights Watch from just five of the 13 townships that
    experienced violence since June show 27 unique zones of destruction, including
    the destruction of 4,862 structures covering 348 acres of mostly Muslim-owned
    residential property.

    government has repeatedly characterized what happened as “inter-communal
    violence” between bitter enemies — Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya
    Muslims — denying any involvement of the state or abuses by state security

    Since June, I
    visited several sites of attacks and every major camp for the displaced,
    interviewing more than 100 victims and witnesses of abuse, as well as some
    perpetrators of violence. There is extensive evidence of complicity of the
    state in ethnic cleansing.

    Following the first
    wave of violence and without setting foot in Rakhine State, the EU and others
    were quick to welcome the Myanmar authorities’ “measured response” to
    the crisis. A spokesperson for the EU’s high representative on foreign affairs,
    Catherine Ashton, said on June 11, “We believe that the security forces
    are handling this difficult inter-communal violence in an appropriate

    The reality on the
    ground was very different. Rohingya survivors alleged how in June soldiers not
    only failed to protect them from arsonist mobs, but opened fire when they
    attempted to extinguish the fires, killing scores. Government authorities in
    Arakan State were busy bulldozing mosques, blocking humanitarian aid to
    Rohingya populations, conducting violent mass arrests of Muslim men and boys,
    and digging mass graves, impeding accountability. Human Rights Watch located the
    existence of at least four such grave sites.

    Two days after the
    EU’s June statement, a government truck dumped 18 naked and half-clothed bodies
    near a camp for displaced Rohingya, according to Human Rights Watch. Some of
    the victims had been “hogtied” with string or plastic strips before
    being executed. The move sent a strong message, consistent with a policy of
    ethnic cleansing, that the Rohingya should leave Myanmar permanently.

    “They dropped
    the bodies right here,” a Rohingya man told me on a visit to the grave
    site. “Three bodies had gunshot wounds. Some had burns, some had stab

    After the smoke
    cleared in June, the Arakanese Buddhist monkhood (or the sangha), political
    operatives, and local government officials allegedly held public meetings in Rakhine State, plotting to drive Rohingya Muslims from their homes. They seized
    on President Thein Sein’s remarks on July 12 that “illegal” Rohingya
    should be sent to “third countries,” and they actively worked to
    isolate Muslim communities from daily necessities and income. Influential
    groups released public statements calling explicitly for “ethnic
    cleansing” and forced population transfer — the government took no action
    to stop them.

    The planned secondwave of violence began on October 22. Thousands of Arakanese reportedly
    descended by foot and boat on Muslim villages in nine townships, carrying
    machetes, swords, spears, homemade guns, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons.
    Plumes of smoke dotted the sky along the fertile patchwork of Arakan State’s
    intra-coastal waterways as entire villages were razed. State security forces
    once again either failed to provide protection, or actively participated in

    On October 23 in
    Yan Thei, Mrauk-U Township, security forces took away sticks and other rudimentary
    weapons from Rohingya and enabled an Arakanese mob to kill about 70 villagers,
    including 28 children, 13 of whom were under age five.

    Today, tens of
    thousands of displaced Rohingya are being denied access to humanitarian aid,
    have their movements restricted, and are unable to return home. They live in
    segregated, squalid camps without adequate food and health services. In just
    weeks the monsoon season will flood several IDP sites, intensifying the
    humanitarian emergency.

    At the root of the
    persecution is the question of citizenship. The Myanmar government considers
    all Rohingya to be immigrants from Bangladesh. They are denied citizenship
    under discriminatory national legislation from 1982, although many families
    have resided in Myanmar for generations. Official government statements reject
    their very existence and refer to them as “Bengali,” “so-called
    Rohingya,” or the pejorative “kalar.”

    The world should
    not be blinded by the excitement of Myanmar’s political opening. Rohingya are
    paying for that approach with their lives.

    Matthew Smith is a
    researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the organization’s report,
    All You Can Do is Pray“: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic
    Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State.