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The Burmese government has exhibited an “unacceptable measure of support” for a systematic campaign of violence against the country’s Muslim minority, which could lead to genocide if left unchecked, a new report warned on Tuesday.
The study by the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documents “consistent” patterns of abuses against Burmese Muslims, including widespread Islamophobia and hate speech fuelled by government acquiescence and a culture of legal impunity, which could lead to mass atrocities.
“If these conditions go unaddressed, Burma may very well face countrywide violence on a catastrophic level, including potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide,” warned the report.
One of its authors told DVB that Burma ticks the boxes for most, if not all, of the eight “warning” indicators drafted by the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the prevention of genocide—especially in Arakan state, where some 800,000 Rohingya Muslims have faced decades of repression. The list includes a history of discrimination and human rights violations, poor legal protections and a corrupt judiciary.
“It doesn’t mean that [genocide] is going on, but that there’s a great risk of it. [So] if these indicators are present, then actions should be taken to prevent it,” said Bill Davis, a PHR Burma researcher. “We didn’t invent this list; we’re just calling it as we see it.”
Describing the report as “credible, balanced, and important”, Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights International, agreed that the issue must be addressed. “The sad reality is that it’s sensible to be discussing indicators of genocide. The goal here is to prevent something far worse from occurring, and that is far different from alleging genocide,” he told DVB.
Burma has been swept by a tide of religious riots since June last year, when Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship by the government and heavily persecuted, clashed with Buddhists in Arakan state. An independent investigation carried out by Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that Burmese security forces had collaborated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority.
Earlier this year, violence spilled across central Burma, resulting in the destruction of more than 10,000 homes, scores of mosques, and a dozen monasteries. PHR accused the government of allowing anti-Rohingya attitudes to “metastasise” into country-wide anti-Muslim sentiments by failing to protect victims or prosecute perpetrators, especially “at the higher level”.
PHR also calls on the Burmese government to investigate reports that hard-line political figures may have colluded with organisers behind the violence—although it does not directly implicate anyone.
“I’m not saying [the government] caused it, but they certainly didn’t act when they should have acted. You can look at the actions of the police, the actions of the military—they didn’t stop the violence when it was going on,” said Davis. “When people are killing each other in the street and police are just standing and watching, that’s definitely a failure to protect.”
In May, PHR published a report into a massacre of Muslim schoolchildren in Meiktila, central Burma, citing several eyewitness accounts, which suggest that police stood idly by as Muslims were slaughtered.
Tuesday’s report also draws a link between Burma’s ultra-nationalist “969” movement—which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses—and several outbreaks of violence. One witness told PHR that one week before violence broke out in Meiktila, groups of Buddhists were going door-to-door handing out 969 stickers to “mark their homes so that they would not be targeted for burning”.
“We certainly see associations between ‘969’ stickers and ‘969’ spray-painted on houses and where attacks occurred and where houses were protected, but it’s harder to prove causality,” said Davis. “I can’t say that the ‘969’ movement planned this, or targeted people, but they’re certainly an anti-Muslim movement and they’re certainly supporting hate speech.”
The movement’s most vocal proponent, the monk U Wirathu, is also known to have delivered inflammatory sermons in many of the areas shortly before they were attacked and reportedly described the massacre of Muslim children in Meiktila as a “show of strength”.
The government has consistently denied responsibility for the violence and defended 969 as a peaceful movement. But activists say this could have a devastating impact on national reconciliation, as Burma continues to emerge from nearly five decades of military rule.
“The government cannot continue to dodge the issue of accountability for inter-religious violence, and hate speech that inspires and instigates it, and expect that this story is going to have a happy ending,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for HRW.