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Asean must take a stand on Myanmar ethnic violence

Publication Date : 02-11-2012


More than 170 people have died since June as a result of fighting between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.

The clashes broke out following reports of the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman by three Muslims in Kyauk-ni-maw, a village on the western coast. It was the scene of Tuesday's incident, in which police shot dead one protester and injured another as they attempted to chase Muslims from the village. The June clashes resulted in the deaths of about 90 people and displaced 75,000 more. Another 84 people were killed and 28,000 displaced in last week's communal strife, which also witnessed arson attacks on 4,400 houses.

Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, while the Rohingya people are stateless Muslims who have been living along the Bangladesh border for generations, including in Rakhine State. The Rohingya are the descendants of workers brought into the country from Bangladesh during British colonial rule. About 800,000 Ronhingya live in three northern townships.

The communal violence has been a major embarrassment for the government of President Thein Sein, who came to power in March 2011 and is often billed as a reformer, at the forefront of the country's political and economic transformation. Thein Sein has appealed to the Buddhists for restraint, but so far his plea has fallen on deaf ears.

Satellite images provided by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) show extensive destruction of homes and property in the predominantly Rohingya area of the coastal town of Kyauk Pyu.

Among the destroyed properties are 633 buildings and 178 houseboats and barges, all of which were razed.

The government will have to do more to provide security for the Rohingya. There is no easy way out of this situation. It must look at the root causes if it wants to end the violence.

Myanmar must also show true commitment to peace and humanitarian causes. The UN and other international agencies working in the Rohingya area were evicted by the central government in June. Some have been reinstated, but more work has to be done, and more access must be granted, including to international observers, now that the violence threatens to get out of hand.

The approximately 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar were effectively stripped of their right to citizenship with the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law, even though most of them have been residents of Rakhine State for decades, according to HRW.

Deploying security forces to restore law and order is not enough. All stakeholders in Myanmar need to come together and work for a permanent solution to Rakhine's ethnic problem. The country's leaders should not rule out international assistance, and should allow this issue to be put on the Asean table.

The violence has driven the Rohingya from their homes, onto the sea and into neighbouring countries. This is not the first time the Rohingya have become a regional issue. Thailand made it an Asean issue a couple of years ago after it was revealed that Thai officials had pushed Rohingya boat people back out to the sea - this despite the fact that they were in need of medical assistance.

Nobody, it seems, wants anything to do with the Rohingya, whose plight is nothing less than horrific. If the members of the 10-country grouping that calls itself Asean can't find it in their hearts to do something about the Rohingya crisis, then all their statements about humanitarianism, empowerment, dignity and so on are not worth the paper they are written on.

No political leaders in Myanmar will gain much capital from supporting the Rohingya or the ongoing violence, according to various analysts. All of us want to see reform succeed in Myanmar, banishing forever its former dictatorial military rule. But this is not an excuse to turn a blind eye to the Rohingya.

HRW Asia director Brad Adams hit the nail on the head when he said: "If the atrocities in Rakhine had happened before the government's reform process started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong. But the international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Myanmar, signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while abuses continue."


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