A local government minister has blasted Burma’s “weak” response to the recent Muslim-Buddhist clashes in Arakan’s Sandoway township, which claimed seven lives.
Speaking to DVB on Monday, the Rangoon government’s Arakan Ethnic Affairs Minister, Zaw Aye Maung, blamed the violence on government corruption and mismanagement.
“Just taking verbal action by making announcements via newspapers and radio isn’t enough,” he said. “The [authorities] need to issue clear directives to their subordinates and take immediate action against those who disobey them.”
Eye witnesses have accused local security forces of failing to prevent mobs of Buddhists torching Muslim homes in western Burma’s Sandoway, fuelling riots that left nearly 500 people homeless.
It follows earlier allegations of state-complicity in a spree of communal riots which has swept through the country since last year. The government has come under fire for its failure to dismiss or prosecute state officers implicated in the violence, including some identified in video footage as standing idly by as Muslim citizens were burned alive.
Zaw Aye Maung blamed endemic state-level corruption for the government’s inaction, suggesting that officials could avoid penalisation by bribing the right people.
“I see the mechanism to take against [insubordinate] government officials has been very weak,” he said. “Instead of taking proper action, they just shuffle them around different departments so they can pocket [bribe money] … If this continues, more problems will arise in the future.”
A spokesperson for the Arakan state government was unable to comment on this story. However, on Tuesday the government claimed to have secured the confessions of six men responsible for all seven murders, and identified 28 others for their role in burning houses.
According to state media, four men have admitted to murdering two Buddhist men in Linthi village. Another two men reportedly took responsibility for the deaths of five Muslims in Thabyuchaing, which included a 94-year-old woman who was too immobile to run away from the mob.
“Punitive actions will be taken against those who were convicted of crimes,” said the report, adding that investigations were underway to uncover the masterminds behind the violence.
There was no mention of the involvement of police officers or state personnel despite allegations of complicity by outside observers and Muslim groups. Five men were also released due to “a lack of evidence”.
President Thein Sein has already blamed “outsiders” for staging the attacks, fuelling speculation that nationalist groups such as the anti-Muslim 969 movement could be behind the violence. But rights groups have questioned the government’s sincerity, describing the president’s comments as a distraction from his own failure to stem the unrest.
Over 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been uprooted since the first bout of clashes between the stateless Rohingya and Buddhists Arakanese last year. In March, a scathing report by Human Rights Watch accused the government of complicity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims and called for accountability.
On Tuesday, a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report warned that communal trust between Kaman Muslims and Buddhist Arakanese in Sandoway, also known as Thandwe, has been completely eroded as a result of the violence. Thirty-six schools across several villages in Sandoway remain closed.
“Both communities are however still wary of sending their children to school across each other’s neighbourhoods,” said the report, adding that the government needs to replace lost school books and teaching materials as a matter of urgency.
OCHA also called for increased security in the region to ensure that all villagers could return to their jobs as soon as possible.
“Over 90 percent of affected families are farmers who are unable to participate in the rice harvest which would be due in the next few weeks as they feel unsafe,” it said.
Although the UN agency acknowledged that the government has provided essential humanitarian assistance to all displaced, it noted that widespread fear has gripped the community. Girls reported being too afraid to go out alone, while many displaced Buddhists from the Muslim-majority Thabyuchaing village – which bore the brunt of the violence – wanted to be relocated elsewhere.
“The riots are breaking out because there is no rule of law,” said Zaw Aye Maung. “It is the government’s responsibility to ensure rule of law as well as the public’s. I believe that calm will be restored if the government and the people work together.”