Burma’s quasi-civilian government has been hit by allegations of “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” this week as Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report into the sectarian violence that ravaged the country’s western Arakan state last year. At least 200 people were killed and more than 125,000 made homeless as mass arson, looting and cold-blooded murder erupted between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingya. HRW accuses Rakhine groups of instigating the bloodshed and the state authorities of allowing them to continue unabated. Fresh and seemingly unconnected Muslim-Buddhist violence then hit elsewhere last month, posing serious questions regarding the state’s ability — or willingness — to maintain order as the country emerges from half a century of brutal junta rule. The report was released the same day that the country’s President, Thein Sein, was awarded a peace prize by the International Crisis Group, and the E.U. lifted trade, economic and individual sanctions on Burma.
According to HRW, Rakhine mobs attacked Muslim communities in four townships in June and then nine townships in October, razing villages and burying “hog-tied” corpses in mass graves. The 153-page report details how at least 70 Rohingya were killed in a single daylong massacre in Yan Thei village in Mrauk-U township. “First the soldiers told us, ‘Do not do anything, we will protect you, we will save you,’ so we trusted them,” a 25-year-old survivor told HRW. “But later they broke that promise. The Arakanese beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them.”
The Rohingya are a stateless people numbering around 800,000, primarily in western Burma. Although many have lived inside the country for generations, they are not included on the list of 135 official ethnic groups as set out by xenophobic former dictator General Ne Win in the 1982 Citizenship Law. The government’s official position is that the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who exploit the porous 300-km border to steal scarce land. They face severe restrictions on travel, marriage and reproduction, and Bangladesh similarly shuns them. Scaremongering Buddhist propaganda also accuses the Rohingya of raping Buddhist women and trying to “Islamify” Burma, now officially known as Myanmar, by taking multiple wives to sire scores of Muslim children.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, accused the Burmese government of engaging “in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.” The new report details how government authorities destroyed mosques, conducted violent mass arrests and blocked aid to displaced Muslims following last year’s strife. The initial clashes were sparked by the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men, and then the mob slaughter of 10 Muslim pilgrims on a bus in retaliation. HRW alleges that during the following months, “Buddhist monks, political-party operatives and government officials organized themselves to permanently change the ethnic demographics of the state” by removing every trace of the Rohingya. “They have their strategy, and they have done all these things as a planned, well-designed operation,” says Kyaw Myint, president of the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, a Rohingya political group, and a former political prisoner.
NGOs warn that conditions in the displacement camps are atrocious, with disease rampant and scarce supplies dwindling. This squalor has played no small part in forcing several thousand Rohingya to risk their lives by undertaking the perilous voyage in rickety craft to resettle in third countries, particularly Malaysia. Rohingya must pay the equivalent of $350 for the privilege, of which most goes to Rakhine human traffickers — ironically the same people they are fleeing. Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist now living in Germany, lost eight family members in the June violence and tells TIME that he is “100% sure” that the government is behind the killing. “If [the government] had the will to, they could stop [the violence] immediately,” he says. “If they continue like this, you will not find any Rohingya inside the country in five years’ time.”
Humanitarian groups that help the Rohingya are also under threat. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) both had staff detained by the authorities in Arakan state last year, and MSF general director Arjan Hehenkamp told a press conference in February that his organization was being intimidated by the Rakhine for working in Rohingya camps. “In pamphlets, letters and Facebook postings, [MSF] and others have been repeatedly accused of having a pro-Rohingya bias by some members of the Rakhine community. It is this intimidation, rather than formal permission for access [to the camps], that is the primary challenge,” he said in a statement.
Increasingly, the violence has not been limited to Rohingya Muslims. In the wake of last year’s violence, the Kaman, a distinct Muslim ethnic group, was also targeted. And last month, a wave of rioting hit the town of Meiktila, around 500 km north of Rangoon. Clashes were sparked by a seemingly innocuous dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop, yet soon spread across the region with 43 people killed, at least 800 homes and five mosques torched, plus around 12,000 people sent to ramshackle displacement camps. The violence spread to a further 11 townships, all tellingly without any Rohingya populations. A shocking new video released by the BBC shows Burmese police officers standing idly by while Buddhist mobs ransack Muslim-owned buildings, and saffron-clad monks participating in the bloodshed. It should be noted, however, that many Buddhists put their lives on the line to protect Muslim neighbors and hide them from the rampaging mobs.
A militant Buddhist organization known by the symbol 969 seems to be at the heart of this resurgent religious animosity, with outspoken monk Wirathu at the helm. Based in Mandalay’s Masoyein Monastery, his bizarre and baseless accusations that Muslims are “waging a jihad war on the Rakhine,” “doping young children with drugs to make them fight” and “disguising themselves as women to get involved in fights” have taken hold. Now 969 stickers are common to denote Buddhist businesses around the country.
The domestic Burmese media has not helped the situation. The derogatory term kalar — used for any dark-skinned person of South Asian appearance — has appeared in print frequently, as has the term Bengalis, which gives credence to the specious notion that the Rohingya are in fact illegal immigrants. But the strongest criticism has been reserved for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner, who has steadfastly refused to condemn the appalling treatment of the Rohingya, preferring instead to blame a lack of “rule of law.” The former human-rights champion appears unwilling to alienate her Buddhist support base in preparation for the looming general election in 2015. For Burma’s Muslims, that date looks very far off.