Current News

Patterns of impunity and deceit in Myanmar

The Rohingya Muslim minority in
Myanmar continues to suffer from violent attacks [Reuters]   
By Emanuel Stoakes
Junuary 27, 2014

A UN supervised investigation is
needed before more atrocities are committed against the Rohingya Muslims.
Yet another deadly attack on Myanmar‘s
persecuted Rohingya minority made the
news 
recently, this time taking place in the village of Du
Chee Ya Tan, Rakhine state, not far from the border with Bangladesh. It is the
latest in a series of incidents over the past 18 months in which the nation’s
Muslim community in general, and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya in
particular, have experienced violence at the hands of Buddhist mobs.
I consulted reliable NGO sources and
interviewed witnesses shortly after the event hit the news in order to assemble
a picture of what may have happened. Brutal acts of slaughter were perpetrated,
so I was told, in retaliation for the killing of a policeman by the villagers,
which occurred after eight Rohingya women had been allegedly kidnapped, killed
and subsequently disposed of with the aid of a local ethnic Rakhine official.
Harrowing claims of rape, murder and
mutilation reported in the Rohingya media were variously corroborated and
denied, off-the-record, by independent monitors, although one particularly
well-placed source informed me that he could confirm that “people were…
bound and executed en masse.”
At the time of writing, what exactly
happened in the village is still unclear; hopefully, the full facts will emerge
soon. Despite such uncertainty, one thing that all those, whom I consulted,
verified was that members of the “Hlon Thein” riot police and army
were present when the attack on Du Chee Ya Tan took place, apparently
letting it happen before their eyes.
This allegation should concern anyone
who recognises human rights, as it appears to represent yet another example of
selective tolerance of slaughter by state forces in a run of disturbing
incidents.
Persisting violence
In June and October 2012, two
outbreaks of sectarian violence resulted in the death of hundreds; whole
neighbourhoods were razed to the ground making more than 140,000 people homeless;
the Rohingya were the principal victims. According to Human Rights Watch, the
group were subjected to crimes
against humanity
 undertaken as part of a campaign of ethnic
cleansing. While those judged chiefly responsible for the abuses were local
political and religious organisations opposed to the Rohingya, state forces
weredeemed complicit and
implicated in some of the worst atrocities.
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In March 2013, a dispute at a gold
shop in the town of
Meiktila
 in central Myanmar sparked a riot which led to
sectarian violence and resulted in mob attacks on Muslims. This left mosques,
shops and whole neighbourhoods eviscerated by fire. Children from a madrassa were
burnt alive 
and Muslims were filmed being brutallyattacked in front of the
police
 who watched without intervening.
Later in the same year Muslim
properties were subjected to arson and members of the religious minority were
reportedly assaulted in front of Burmese authorities ina further two
states at least
. The government has not yet prosecuted a single
member of the security forces despite the existence of considerable
evidence
of wrongdoing.
Another incident that preceded the
events at Du Chee Ya Tan conforms to a similarly alarming pattern, likewise one
that, at this stage, cannot be easily dismissed as coincidental: Buddhist monks
from the extremist anti-Muslim 969 movement visited the nearby city of Maungdaw
not long before the violence broke out, reportedly encouraging ethnic
hatred. According to the
Associated Press
, they gave “sermons by loudspeaker
advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya”.
It is a matter of documented fact
that visits by 969 proponents preceded many major anti-Muslim attacks in towns
across the country, undoubtedly heightening existing tensions. This was
definitely the case in Lashio,
and Thandwe;
in Meiktila, weeks before the violence broke out, leaflets were circulated
among the Buddhist clergy that claimed Muslims
were part of a Saudi conspiracy to cause trouble in the town.
Prior to violence in Rakhine state in
October 2012, Buddhist groups openly advocated the ethnic cleansing
of Muslims
.
A state of denial and impunity
The state has solidly defended both
the security apparatus and the Buddhist priesthood, the two entities allegedly
linked to the atrocities, against international criticism and allowed them to
continue to act with impunity. Despite the existence of laws proscribing
religious hate speech, the government has done essentially nothing to halt the
activities of the 969 movement, even as the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the group’s
spiritual leader Ashin Wirathu has grown more and more provocative. Instead,
the president himself, among other senior politicians, has publicly lent
the demagogic monk his support
.
Maintaining past form, when news
broke of the events in Du Chee Ya Tan, Naypyidaw issued a stern denial that a
massacre had taken place. Hmuu Zaw, spokesman for President Thein Sein tweeted:
#Myanmargovt
has strongly rejected that mob kills more than dozen muslims, news from#AP .
And warned that false news fuelling conflict.”
The deputy information minister, Ye
Htut, told the press:
“We have no information on killings.” He latersuggested that
the reports of violence may have been an attempt by the Rohingya to cover up
the murder of a police officer.
Reading these statements, redolent of
desperation as they seemed, it was difficult to resist the suspicion that such
denials were prompted by the fact that the state risked being implicated in an
atrocity.
What made it even harder to take such
statements seriously was their similarity to past government declarations that
evinced blatant, inciteful, anti-Rohingya bias.During the first outbreak of
anti-Rohingya violence in June, Zaw announcedon
Facebook that “Rohingya terrorists” had crossed the border into
Rakhine state, adding “we will eradicate them until the end!. …We don’t
want to hear any… any talk of justice nor want anyone to teach us like a
saint.” The comment provoked outrage and was later removed by the author.
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Ye Htut’s invocation of Rohingya
conspiracy over this latest event was followed by a report in the
state-run paper “The New Light of Myanmar”
 which
was headlined “AP, Irrawaddy falsely reports violence occurred in Rakhine
State.”
Articles published during the pogroms
in 2012 by government-controlled media placed the blame
for the violence in Rakhine state on Rohingya “terrorists”
.
Such behaviour, all of it on record,
appears to contradict Naypyidaw’s attempts to present itself as a neutral party
in relation to the religious violence in the country and public claims of
committed peace-promotion.
The need for accountability
While the last year-and-a-half’s
spate of anti-Muslim assaults may well be an organic by-product of Myanmar’s
reforms, as has been argued cogently by some,
the trends outlined above nonetheless beg for closer scrutiny, not least
because they point toward apparent government disregard or even tacit
acquiescence to persisting crimes which they say they wish to halt.
This is particularly so in the
context of the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, who, experts have
judged to be at serious risk of genocide
, in no small part due
to state policy, which reflects a long-running, unconcealed contempt for the
minority.
While probity of these issues is
urgently required, it will be difficult to have faith in any potential internal
reviews commissioned by Naypyidaw; rather, it is high time that a full
investigation be undertaken under the authority of the United Nations.
The need for all this is, in my view,
self-evident; the question remains: Will Myanmar’s new international friends
have the courage to call for this before more monstrous crimes and vapid
denials come to pass?
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance
journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and
conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Daily
Telegraph, The Independent, The New Statesman and Souciant Magazine, among
others. 
Follow him on Twitter: @EmanuelStoakes
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.