Another village inhabited by Muslims was assaulted in Burma last week. The violence broke out in Oakkan, north of Rangoon, after a Muslim woman bumped into a novice monk.
Day after day, it is becoming clear that there is a systematic campaign to terrorise the country’s Muslim minorities, especially in light of the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claiming the country’s Rohingya population has suffered from ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
In late March, religious riots exploded after an argument in a gold shop in Meikhtila in central Burma escalated, resulting in mosques being burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets. At least 40 people were killed and 12,000 displaced in the episode.
Since then dozens of people have been detained in connection with the violence and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed on several towns, as authorities tried to quell the violence. The episode and the riots that followed marked the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since fighting erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in the Arakan state last year, leaving around 200 people dead and more than 120,000 displaced.
The UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser for Burma Vijay Nambiar, who visited Meikhtila, told reporters that Muslim homes had been targeted with “brutal efficiency.” His comments concurred with the testimonies of witnesses across the riot-hit area.
UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said he received reports “of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.”
Other allegations received by the special rapporteur have indicated that the military and police may be arbitrarily detaining people based on religious and ethnic profiling. The envoy also expressed concern that religious leaders and their supporters are publicly spreading hate speech.
“Tackling discrimination is fundamental to establishing the rule of law, and impunity for acts of violence and discrimination must no longer be tolerated,” he said. “The military and police must now be held to account for human rights violations committed against ethnic and religious minorities.”
He pointed out that the government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination targeting Muslim communities across the country or to tackle the organised and coordinated mobs that are inciting hatred and violently attacking Muslim communities.
Addressing the pogroms in western Burma
The Rohingya are subjected to daily humiliation as restrictions are placed on their ability to marry, have children, gain employment, travel and practice their religion. For those displaced in camps, they are denied access to humanitarian aid and basic health care.
The problem is that the government and Burmese society openly consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite evidence to the contrary. The 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of Burmese citizenship on discriminatory ethnic grounds depriving them of their civil and political rights.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been concerned with the issue of Rohingya Muslims in Burma for years and has put in considerable effort to support their decades-old cause under the despotic military rule that supposedly ended in 2011.
Successive OIC ministerial and summit resolutions on the issue have reiterated the need to stop violence, killings, displacement, indecent assaults, demolition of houses, property and places of worship and sowing hatred against Muslim communities in Burma. They have also called on the government to restore those people’s legitimate rights, especially their right to citizenship.
The OIC Secretary General, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, has made several attempts to get in contact with Burmese officials and opposition parties to address the issue of Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence but have yet to receive a response from authorities. The secretary general also sent letters to the UN Secretary General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the secretary general of the ASEAN, in which he called on the international community to help protect Burma’s minority populations. He has also urged the UN Security Council to address the situation, which has the potential to threaten regional security.
Last year, an OIC mission signed a memorandum of understanding with the Burmese government, which would allow the organisation to open a humanitarian office in the country; however, the government has since reneged on the deal, after encountering strong opposition from Buddhist nationalists.
For its part, the OIC has worked to unite various Rohingya organisations around the world under one umbrella – the Arakan Rohingya Union – to give the Rohingya a stronger standing when approaching international forums. The OIC also launched the World Rohingya Center, which will act as an information base and communication provider for the ethnic group.
Following the recent violence, Ihsanoglu called on the Human Rights Council to embark on immediate investigations into the flagrant violations against the Rohingya Muslims to the chagrin of Naypyidaw. The OIC continues to follow this matter and seeks to place it on the agenda of key international interlocutors, including the UN, the human rights commissions and the EU in order to reach a peaceful and lasting settlement.
However, following the EU’s decision last month to lift all remaining sanctions on Burma, there is little remaining leverage left to persuade the government to address the challenges of ethnic violence and discrimination. Persuading neighbouring countries to take in more Rohingya refugees is not the answer. The Burmese government should be pressured to address the root causes of the problem.
If ultra-nationalist Buddhists in the country continue to preach and promote hate, they should not be encouraged or rewarded. The world has witnessed several times throughout history how harmful brutal vengeful zealots can be. Ignoring the obvious signs that could lead to a potential genocide should not be repeated.
Burma desperately needs to launch a comprehensive national campaign to promote reconciliation, tolerance and interreligious dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims, while allowing international NGOs and media outlets unhindered access to vulnerable communities affected by the recent waves of violence.
Justice begins when all people are treated as equal human beings with equal rights. The Burmese government must begin implementing measures to protect at risk populations, prevent communal violence from spreading and clearly demonstrate that it is serious about holding individuals accountable for past and present violence.
Maha Akeel is the managing editor of the quarterly magazine, OIC Journal, issued by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy