Burma’s government – hailed around the world for its flurry of recent democratic reforms – stood by as its security forces raped and murdered members of a long-persecuted ethnic minority, a new report has alleged.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), after troops opened fire and attacked the Rohingya Muslims, the authorities then unleashed a campaign of further violence and mass round-ups. Hundreds of men and boys remain in detention.
At least 80 people were killed and many more injured after clashes broke out in June between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Burma’s western Rakhine state. The New York-based organisation said the
official tally of those killed appeared to have been “grossly underestimated”.
“What is remarkable is that if the atrocities that we saw had happened before the government reform process had started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong,” HRW’s Phil Robertson told a press conference in Bangkok, according to Reuters. “But the international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Burma, signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while the abuses continue.”
The Muslims of western Burma have for decades suffered persecution. Considered “outsiders” by many Burmese despite the fact they have lived in the country for centuries, in 1982 they were stripped of
their citizenship rights by the then military ruler Ne Win. During various outbreaks of violence, groups of Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and hundreds of thousands survive illegally in wretched camps close to the border.
President Thein Sein has said he would like to deport an estimated 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma to Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has resisted any such efforts and countless
numbers of desperate Rohingya families trying to reach Bangladesh on makeshift vessels have been turned back by navy personnel.
The violence this summer was triggered after a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by a group of Rohingya men and a series of bloody reprisals were carried out. The report said that members of both communities committed horrendous acts of violence, including stabbings, beheadings, shooting and arson.
It quoted one Rohingya man in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe as saying that security forces had watched as a Buddhist mob started setting fire to homes. “When the people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks,” he said.
Another Rohingya man said: “I was just a few feet away. I was on the road. I saw them shoot at least six people - one woman, two children, and three men. The police took their bodies away.”
The plight of the Rohingya could prove to be a major test for Thein Sein, whose reforms towards democracy, including the release of political prisoners such as Aung San Suu Kyi, saw Western nations lift economic sanctions and seek new political and business engagement. Western nations, including the US and Britain, insisted that the resolution of ethnic conflicts had to be a priority if relations with
Burma were to be normalised.
Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have also faced criticism for failing to speak out against the violence that has been directed towards the Rohingya. To the chagrin of international
observers, several senior Burmese figures long associated with the struggle for democracy have claimed the Rohingya are “migrants” who should leave the country.
Last month The Independent reported that even the country’s Buddhist monks had been calling on people to shun the minority group. Several monks organisations issued pamphlets telling people not to associate with the Rohingya community, and blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching them. One leaflet described the Rohingya as “cruel by nature” and claimed it had “plans to exterminate” other ethnic groups.