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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.