Monday, April 22, 2013

Myanmar’s communal violence-When praying is not enough

AN IMPORTANT new report from Human Rights Watch on the violence last year in western Myanmar's Rakhine state has particular resonance for this blog. Two days last October in Mrauk-u in Rakhine marked for me a low point in a long career in journalism. After some time reporting in Sittwe on the aftermath of the terrible violence in June between the Buddhist, ethnic-Rakhine majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority, we had taken the five-hour boat trip upriver to the ancient capital of what used to be known as Arakan.

We knew the tourist site, famous for its countless gilt pagodas and fairyland scenery, would be tense. We did not know it would turn into a war zone the morning after we arrived. Plumes of black smoke rose from nearby villages, torched by angry mobs. Informal rag-tag armies of Rakhines armed with every imaginable sort of primitive weapon converged from all directions and set off to wreak revenge on Rohingyas for what was said to be the killing of three Buddhists. 

I borrowed a bicycle from the helpful, if traumatised, owner of our guest house, and followed the armies. I passed through villages where those not joining the mob were standing guard tensely in front of their homes—small wooden huts on stilts. Many told me to turn back. But nobody tried to stop me until I reach a checkpoint just outside one of the burning villages. The police would not let me go any farther.

It was clear something terrible was happening. Yet it was impossible to find out precisely what. We were told there had been massacres, including of women and children. But all our sources were Rakhine, who did not want to give details—even if they knew. It was also next-to-impossible to communicate. I had no mobile-phone signal, though the guest-house owner occasionally managed to find one, and even to get online at painfully slow speeds. When we left, our Rakhine guide had arranged some men to protect us on the short journey from the boat-ferry terminal to the airport in Sittwe (unnecessarily, it seemed to me).

We flew south. I reported what I knew. The Economist’s print edition did not even want a story until my column the following week, by when the immediate crisis had passed.

It was a profoundly depressing experience. Rarely have I seen ethnic or religious hatred of such intensity, or felt so little hope of reconciliation. And, as a reporter, never have I been so close to a big story and so unable to research it properly or even to convey its importance to the outside world, to which news of the carnage across Rakhine state only gradually filtered out. 

The violence in June and October resolved nothing. Tens of thousands of Rohingyas remain displaced, in squalid camps that will become even more hazardous to their health with the onset of the rainy season next month. At least 20,000 have taken to the seas to flee; more than 500 have drowned.

Yet the Buddhist Rakhines—a majority in the state but themselves a minority in Myanmar—are no closer to the goal many espouse: the mass deportation of the Rohingyas to Bangladesh, from where they say they came as illegal immigrants. Having failed to achieve the ethnic cleansing many Rakhines want, they are enforcing a de facto but unstable uneasy apartheid. The state is waiting for the next eruption.

Nor has there been any thorough official investigation into the unrest, let alone justice for the victims, who included a much smaller number of Rakhine killed or driven from their homes.
The gap is filled in part by the new report, “All you can do is pray”. Based on dozens of interviews with survivors, it paints the most comprehensive picture yet of the horrifying events of last year and their enduring consequences. It tells me, for example, that, beyond the checkpoint I was not allowed to cross, at least 52 Rohingyas were killed in a day-long massacre. Many were, on the orders of the police and army, buried in mass graves, in the interest of time.

The report makes other serious accusations against the Burmese security forces, not just of doing too little to protect Rohingyas from the attacks and burnings, but of actively taking part in and even co-ordinating the attacks.

It points out that the government since the massacres has done nothing to punish the guilty, nor to reverse the ethnic cleansing of parts of the state, nor has it done enough to allow aid into the Rohingya camps. Thein Sein, the president lauded for his democratic reforms, last year called for the Rohingyas to be given a home overseas. Most are stateless, denied Burmese citizenship, even though many have been in Myanmar for generations.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize-winning leader of the opposition, has said she does not know if the Rohingyas are Burmese. Human Rights Watch accused her and her National League for Democracy of failing “to condemn the rights abuses” taking place in Rakhine.

The Rohingyas are a uniquely persecuted group, not even recognised as a separate minority. But, partly fanned by hardline members of the Buddhist clergy, anti-Muslim feeling is spreading beyond Rakhine. Last month at least 43 Muslims were killed in the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar. New video shown on the BBC appears to show the security forces there, too, standing by as Muslims were assaulted and their homes were torched.

All of this jars with the good-news story that is mostly told about Myanmar, and with the enthusiastic embrace for its reformist government by the West. The killings in Rakhine did not stop Barack Obama paying the first visit by an American president last November. And on April 22nd, the publication day of the Human Rights Watch report, the EU was expected to lift sanctions against Myanmar (“suspended” a year ago) for good.

Recalling that the EU has also won the Nobel peace prize, Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson is aghast: “with the EU’s action to lift sanctions despite continuing human-rights problems, and the continued failure of Aung San Suu Kyi to call out the Burmese government for what they are doing in Rakhine state, Myanmar is rapidly becoming a Nobel peace prize disappointment zone.” Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: Human Rights Watch)

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