By Holly Atkinson
August 30, 2013
I am still haunted by the testimony I heard from a survivor of the March massacre of dozens of Muslims in the central Myanmar town of Meiktila. He told me how he saw his best friend, a boy of 13, doused with gasoline and burned alive by two Buddhist men who were part of an attacking mob, while police and community leaders watched from an embankment.
This disturbing event is unfortunately one of far too many in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has failed to protect its Muslim minority population, including Rohingya, against an unprecedented wave of violence that has spread across the country since mid-2012. The lack of response on the part of the government has provided for a culture of impunity for perpetrators, increasing the likelihood of more human rights abuses.
Over the past year, my colleagues at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and I have heard from dozens of informants and eyewitnesses about horrific acts of violence in 18 locations across Myanmar. These attacks have resulted in injury, displacement, economic hardship and death. Over the past two years, entire villages have been burnt to the ground, children have been killed, schools and mosques have been destroyed, and upwards of 250,000 people have been displaced.
Not only have the Myanmar police and military committed acts of omission by standing idly by and failing to protect the victims, but they have also facilitated some of these crimes. During episodes of violence against Muslim communities, PHR documented instances of police directly attacking individuals, as well as firing their weapons into crowds. Such behaviour not only violates international police guidelines, but contributes to the climate of impunity, and has, without a doubt, enabled or encouraged the attacks. Simply put, there is little risk for people who attack Muslims.
Most of the violent episodes reveal a pattern: they begin with an “inciting incident”, which then leads to the targeting of an entire community, not just the alleged perpetrator. The government, instead of protecting the vulnerable, has allowed such incidents to spread. For far too long, it has sponsored feelings of Buddhist nationalism and allowed the targeting of the most marginalised groups, instead of taking steps to protect them. Democracy leaders in the region have also been quiet on the issue of anti-Muslim violence.
The structural violence is still in place and could lead to additional attacks at any time. We are pleased that the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation on Myanmar visited the country this month, and hope he will press for some much-needed reforms.
What does the Myanmar government need to do? It must create an atmosphere of tolerance, where the rights of all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, are respected and protected.
The government must also thoroughly investigate these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, including police and military personnel. It is also imperative for the government to urgently tackle the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. This means not only addressing issues of food, water, medical care, security and shelter, but also providing for a dignified future for the 100,000 Rohingya essentially imprisoned in the camps.
While there have been significant, and much welcomed, political improvements in Myanmar, these reforms should not be used to minimise the gravity of the deadly and systematic anti-Muslim violence that has gripped the nation.
It is time for the culture of impunity to end, and everyone’s human rights to be respected.
The Myanmar government, civil society and the international community must stand together in order to end the violence, promote reconciliation, and secure the human rights of all.
Dr Holly Atkinson is volunteer medical adviser and past board president of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
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