Burma Lets the Rohingya Burn


The West’s faith in Burma isn’t being repaid. When U.S. President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on investments by American companies in the country last month, state security forces were still committing killings, rape and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state. These abuses came after the authorities failed to protect both Rohingya and Arakan Buddhists during sectarian violence that erupted in early June and which continues today.

The Rohingya, largely scorned by Burmese society, are treated as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Because they were stripped of citizenship in 1982, even in the best of times they are subjected to forced labor, arbitrary detentions, beatings and restrictions on movement.

But they’ve had it worse since June. We can trace the immediate causes of the violence to the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men, which was followed on June 3 by the retaliatory massacre of 10 Burmese Muslim travelers in the town of Toungop. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in northern Arakan soon rioted, and then violence quickly spread to the state capital Sittwe and beyond.

Despite the large Burmese military presence in the state, local Arakan and Rohingya residents described how the authorities failed to protect them through the days of grisly violence. A displaced Arakan mother of five told me how she witnessed a mob of Rohingya kill and nearly behead her husband, chopping off his arm. A displaced Rohingya woman explained how an Arakan mob beat her and her family in their home, killing her brother-in-law when he attempted to flee.

While the army eventually contained the violence in Sittwe, local security forces still opened fire on Rohingya as they attempted to extinguish fires set by groups of Arakan. A 36-year-old Rohingya man from the largest Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe told me that an Arakan mob set fire to his family’s home in the presence of security forces. “When the people tried to put out the fires,” he said, “the paramilitary shot at us.”

Scores of witnesses to the violence say the same thing. “The government could have stopped this,” a young Arakan man told us in Sittwe. Just days later an ethnic Rohingya elder used the exact same words: “The government could have stopped this.”

Testimonials such as this should make observers doubt the government’s word. The government claims 78 people died in the violence. Human Rights Watch fears the number is significantly higher.

In the predominantly Muslim townships of northern Arakan, state security forces have killed and rounded up fleeing Rohingya in violent mass arrests, holding detainees incommunicado and subjecting them to beatings and torture. Over 100,000 people have been displaced and the government has restricted humanitarian access to the Rohingya community, leaving many in dire need of food, shelter and medical care.

Successive Burmese governments have long abused both the Rohingya and Arakan populations—the Arakan because of their fierce ethnic nationalism, and the Rohingya because of a wholesale denial the group has any place in Burma, a view shared by much of Burma’s population. The abuses we’re seeing now are simply an extension of decades of state policies of persecution.

These human-rights abuses are worrying because they raise doubts about President Thein Sein’s political-reform program. To his credit, he has instituted important changes in Burma since taking office in March 2011. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, freedoms of assembly have been respected, and the democratic opposition now holds several seats in parliament. This is surely cause for hope.

Nevertheless, because these changes were carefully planned, it appears the government is now willfully ignoring the Rohingya stain on its human-rights record. Leave aside for a moment the fact that Burma’s discriminatory citizenship law denies 800,000 to one million Rohingya their rights. Now, President Thein Sein proposes to address the crisis in Arakan by expelling them from the country. This would be the “only solution,” he told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Before Westerners treat the Rohingya story as a remote incident, consider that Arakan state is home to tens of billions of dollars worth of verified natural gas deposits. U.S. firms hope to compete in this area with Chinese, Korean, and Indian oil companies that have been there for years, but now it’s in a state of emergency. If the government is violating human rights, businesses can’t depend on the maintenance of law and order. Aung San Suu Kyi argued as much a few months ago.

Transition from authoritarian rule will not come without setbacks. But no one is served when the state fails to address the gravity of such abuses. Rather than generate undue optimism for the country’s investment prospects, world leaders need to let Burma’s rulers know they will not be rewarded for continuing these atrocities.

(Mr. Smith is a researcher with Human Rights Watch and an author of the new report, “The Government Could Have Stopped This: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,” published last week).

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