Things seem to keep getting worse for Muslims living in Burma. Despite a recent proclamation from Burma President Thein Sein that he and his government “will take all necessary action” to protect the human rights of Muslims in Rakhine state, there seems little reason to hope that those rights will be recognized, let alone protected. Up to this point, there has been little to no accountability for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. Thousands are displaced and living in poverty and uncertainty, and they are among the most marginalized groups in Burma.
Thein Sein paid lip service to the importance of religious freedom and tolerance in a peaceful society during a recent television appearance, and said he will address “citizenship-related issues” regarding the Rohingya. They are considered a stateless people, refugees from Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya were born in Burma.
“Words matter at such a sensitive time and it is positive to see Thein Sein’s statement on the situation, even if some of it gave reason for concern,” said Matthew Smith, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The true test will be whether words lead to positive action, and unfortunately [Sein’s] track record on that is weak with respect to the plight of the Rohingya.”
HRW has called the violence against Muslims in Burma a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The organization has also accused the government of allowing and even encouraging the violence and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Buddhist-Muslim tensions reached a boiling point in recent months with rioting breaking out in Meiktila in March, during which 43 people died and thousands fled their homes. Flare-ups have continued since then, including an incident in a township about 60 miles north of Rangoon last week in which one person was killed during a riot over a Muslim woman accidentally bumping into a young Buddhist monk. Buddhists began attacking mosques and shops, and 10 people were injured during the fighting that ensued.
(READ MORE: Burma president vows to protect Muslim rights)
Even as they attempt to cling to some semblance of safety and normalcy in Burma, Muslim groups in the country may see further backlash thanks to international incidents involving radical Islamists. Abu Bakar Bashir, an extremist said to have encouraged bombings in Bali in 2002, has called for jihad in Burma as revenge for the persecution of Muslims in Rakhine state. Six Muslims have been charged with the death of a Buddhist monk during the March riots, and two others are being held for plotting to set off bombs at the Burmese embassy in Indonesia. On Wednesday, Indonesian police engaged in a shoot-out with four suspects who have also been linked to the bomb plot.
Such news is only likely to enflame anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma and fuel fears of Islamic extremism.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma is fueled by unfounded fears of an Islamic plot to take over the country,” Smith said. “We documented how state security forces perpetuated those fears among local people in [Rakhine] State, alleging that all mosques were outposts of terrorism, and so on. Now the plight of the Rohingya is getting attention from extremist organizations internationally which will only make matters worse.”
Of course, this will only increase the likelihood that the rights of the Rohingya will continue to be ignored and violated, by Buddhist extremists and by the government. Though Thein Sein’s words might sound diplomatic, he is still a politician, and one who has allowed horrifying crimes against humanity to be perpetrated against ethnic minorities throughout his tenure.
“The lack of accountability for crimes committed against Muslim communities is seriously concerning,” Smith said. “The authorities need to demonstrate that investigations and prosecutions aren’t discriminatory and are in line with international standards, but they aren’t doing that. The president’s words matter at such a sensitive time, but actions speak louder.”
Smith also said that the time has come for an international investigation into the crisis, and indeed, it may be international attention and pressure that can stem the tide of violence against Muslims in Burma, at least from the government. The Dalai Lama himself has called for an end to the violence against Muslims, which should raise the profile of those being persecuted in Burma.
If nothing else, Thein Sein and his government have sought to improve Burma’s standing in the international community, attracting global investors and encouraging tourism. Their tenuous image of an administration that is seeking to develop a modern, democratic Burma can only be tarnished by an ongoing campaign of violence against one of the most disenfranchised segments of the population. Besides, Smith pointed out that the troubles in resource-rich Rakhine state “would give pause to any responsible investor.”
He added that while the changes in Burma so far have been noteworthy, “the ongoing abuses, ethnic cleansing, and anti-Muslim violence expose the limits to reform and certainly challenge the public image being crafted by the Naypyidaw elite.”