Last week marked the somber one-year anniversary of the violent sectarian conflict in Rakhine state that broke out last June and enflamed tensions between Buddhists and Muslims there. That set off a long 12 months of disquiet and tragedy for Burma’s Muslim population, and their woes are likely to be exacerbated as they continue to see higher rates of punishment for the unrest.
What began as conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has spread in the last year to more widespread anti-Muslim violence throughout Burma and increasing instability for thousands upon thousands of people. To date, there are 150,000 displaced Muslims living desperate existences within the confines of overcrowded IDP camps.
A 40-year-old woman named Daw Khin Htwe, a Muslim married to a Rohingya man, told her harrowing story to IRIN News. She and her children witnessed the brutal murder of her mother-in-law and another relative. IRIN quotes her as saying, “We know who did this, but also know nothing will come of it. How can our communities ever reconcile if such crimes go unpunished? Will there be any accountability? Only if the authorities arrest and punish those responsible is there any real prospect for reconciliation. What will happen to us if we return to our homes now? It could happen all over again.”
Daw Khin Htwe raised an important point about crimes going unpunished, as Muslims seem to bear the brunt of the prosecutions that result from these all-too-frequent outbreaks of violence.
“Anti-Muslim discrimination by the state in Myanmar [Burma] runs deep. We can see it in the disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of Muslims in the aftermaths of anti-Muslim violence,” Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights International, said via email.
Smith noted that by the government’s own admission, 75 percent of the arrests made in regard to the June riots have been of Muslims, a staggering number when you consider that many of the outbreaks were due to anti-Muslim sentiment.
A Muslim man was sentenced to 26 years in prison last week, after being accused of lighting a Buddhist woman on fire and setting off two days of anti-Muslim rioting in Lashio. In May, two Muslim men were arrested for their alleged involvement in the deaths of two Buddhists during rioting in Meikhtila in March. The violent, deadly riots were largely targeted at Muslims, with Buddhist monks stirring anti-Muslim sentiment. However, Buddhists have up this point seen less harsh punishment than Muslims. Voice of America reported on May 21 that no Buddhists had been convicted in connection with the riots up to that point.
On May 10, five Buddhists who had been arrested on charges of defaming religion, aggravated burglary, unlawful assembly and vandalism, were released on bail, according to Democratic Voice of Burma.
However, two Buddhists were arrested in early May following an attack on a Muslim-owned shop.
The disproportionate targeting of Muslims for prosecution seems to fall in line with a larger trend of the government seeming to further, rather than alleviate, the tenuous situation.
Human Rights Watch accused the Burmese government of engaging in an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, and condemned its actions and lack thereof when it comes to acting on the rights of this people.
“The situation in Rakhine State is not improving. Instances of violence by state security forces against Rohingya are continuing, entire communities of displaced Muslims still lack adequate aid, and the authorities have made no moves to facilitate the voluntary returns of displaced Muslims,” Smith said. “It has been an entire year of displacement and tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya still lack adequate access to health care. This is not due to a lack of expertise in the country. The problems are the result of persecution.”
Even if more proportionate arrests and punishment are seen, that will not address the underlying causes of the violence. The anti-Muslim sentiment that has spread throughout parts of the country can only serve to further divide the people living in Burma and cause more poverty and hardship for tens of thousands who live there. The government has sanctioned military action against Muslim communities, and as Smith pointed out, done little to improve their living conditions. This kind of institutional discrimination, in addition to the jailings, will only reinforce prejudices against them and pave the way for more violence. A genuine defense of basic human rights is necessary to prevent the need for arrests and jailings in the first place.