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President Thein Sein has pardoned three Muslim aid workers, including two UN staff, accused of inciting religious and ethnic hatred amid the June riots in Arakan state, mere days after they were sentenced to several years in jail.
The decision, announced on the president’s website on Wednesday, marks Thein Sein’s latest effort to appease international outrage over his government’s response to the Arakan crisis, which has cast a spotlight on the persecution of the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma.
The three released staff members have been identified as Khin Shwe from the World Food Program (WFP), Khin Maung from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Ma Cho Lay Mar from Community Social Services Education Project (CSSEP).
On Friday, a Maungdaw court sentenced them to two, three and six years in jail respectively over allegations of instigating violence, committing arson, “orally criticising” the government, and illegally holding foreign currency.
They were among 12 local aid workers arrested in the wake of the deadly sectarian clashes that pitted Buddhist Arakanese against Rohingya Muslims, killing at least 87 people and displacing tens of thousands.
Chris Lewa from the Arakan Project, which campaigns for Rohingya rights, described the president’s decision as “good news”, but warned that it also highlights systemic flaws in Burma’s legal system.
“As far as I understand, none of the UN workers had access to lawyers. They were sentenced on the basis of allegations, without any witnesses or any other way to prove if they were guilty,” she told DVB. “It shows something incredibly wrong with the whole justice system in Burma.”
Six other aid workers were released earlier this month, but at least three more, including UN staff, remain behind bars.
“UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] still has one staff members in detention, and we are hoping they will also be released soon,” said spokesperson Vivian Tan.
The Burmese government has come under heavy criticism for their handling of the Arakan crisis, including accusations of targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and basic civic rights.
Several foreign governments have pressured President Thein Sein to take action after campaign groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, accused the military-backed regime of state-sponsored violence against the minority.
On Friday, Thein Sein – who has previously talked of expelling the group from Burma — angered nationalists by accusing Arakanese politicians and Buddhist monks of fuelling anti-Rohingya bigotry. It follows the creation of a 27-member multi-faith commission to investigate violence.
Although the move has been seen as diplomatically reconciliatory, Thein Sein’s persistent use of the term “Bengali Muslims” for the Rohingya suggests the group cannot expect citizenship in the near future.
“I think he sees that he has to make a move that’s more conciliatory, because he doesn’t want this conflict to continue,” said Lewa. “He can’t just ignore that the Rohingya exist.”
But she is fairly sceptical that the investigative commission will yields results, particularly given the exclusion of Rohingya representatives and inclusion of many anti-Rohingya figures.
“No one can tell me what exactly the terms of reference are for the investigative commission. It seems to be more focused on finding solutions rather than investigating the facts on the ground.”
Tensions flared in Arakan state after the rape and murder of an Arakanese girl in late May, allegedly by three Muslims, sparked a series of revenge attacks. It brought to the fore long-standing tensions between ethnic Arakanese and the Rohingya minority, considered “illegal Bengali immigrants” by the government and widely distrusted in Burmese society.