Patterns of impunity and deceit in Myanmar

A UN supervised investigation is needed before more atrocities are committed against the Rohingya Muslims.

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar continues to suffer from violent attacks [Reuters]

Yet another deadly attack on Myanmar‘s persecuted Rohingya minority made the news recently, this time taking place in the village of Du Chee Ya Tan, Rakhine state, not far from the border with Bangladesh. It is the latest in a series of incidents over the past 18 months in which the nation’s Muslim community in general, and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya in particular, have experienced violence at the hands of Buddhist mobs.

I consulted reliable NGO sources and interviewed witnesses shortly after the event hit the news in order to assemble a picture of what may have happened. Brutal acts of slaughter were perpetrated, so I was told, in retaliation for the killing of a policeman by the villagers, which occurred after eight Rohingya women had been allegedly kidnapped, killed and subsequently disposed of with the aid of a local ethnic Rakhine official.

Harrowing claims of rape, murder and mutilation reported in the Rohingya media were variously corroborated and denied, off-the-record, by independent monitors, although one particularly well-placed source informed me that he could confirm that “people were… bound and executed en masse.”

At the time of writing, what exactly happened in the village is still unclear; hopefully, the full facts will emerge soon. Despite such uncertainty, one thing that all those, whom I consulted, verified was that members of the “Hlon Thein” riot police and army were present when the attack on Du Chee Ya Tan took place, apparently letting it happen before their eyes.

This allegation should concern anyone who recognises human rights, as it appears to represent yet another example of selective tolerance of slaughter by state forces in a run of disturbing incidents.

Persisting violence

In June and October 2012, two outbreaks of sectarian violence resulted in the death of hundreds; whole neighbourhoods were razed to the ground making more than 140,000 people homeless; the Rohingya were the principal victims. According to Human Rights Watch, the group were subjected to crimes against humanity undertaken as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. While those judged chiefly responsible for the abuses were local political and religious organisations opposed to the Rohingya, state forces were deemed complicit and implicated in some of the worst atrocities.

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In March 2013, a dispute at a gold shop in the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar sparked a riot which led to sectarian violence and resulted in mob attacks on Muslims. This left mosques, shops and whole neighbourhoods eviscerated by fire. Children from a madrassa were burnt alive and Muslims were filmed being brutally attacked in front of the police who watched without intervening. Later in the same year Muslim properties were subjected to arson and members of the religious minority were reportedly assaulted in front of Burmese authorities in a further two states at least. The government has not yet prosecuted a single member of the security forces despite the existence of considerable evidenceof wrongdoing.

Another incident that preceded the events at Du Chee Ya Tan conforms to a similarly alarming pattern, likewise one that, at this stage, cannot be easily dismissed as coincidental: Buddhist monks from the extremist anti-Muslim 969 movement visited the nearby city of Maungdaw not long before the violence broke out, reportedly encouraging ethnic hatred. According to the Associated Press, they gave “sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya”.

It is a matter of documented fact that visits by 969 proponents preceded many major anti-Muslim attacks in towns across the country, undoubtedly heightening existing tensions. This was definitely the case in Lashio, and Thandwe; in Meiktila, weeks before the violence broke out, leaflets were circulated among the Buddhist clergy that claimed Muslims were part of a Saudi conspiracy to cause trouble in the town.

Prior to violence in Rakhine state in October 2012, Buddhist groups openly advocated the ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

A state of denial and impunity

The state has solidly defended both the security apparatus and the Buddhist priesthood, the two entities allegedly linked to the atrocities, against international criticism and allowed them to continue to act with impunity. Despite the existence of laws proscribing religious hate speech, the government has done essentially nothing to halt the activities of the 969 movement, even as the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the group’s spiritual leader Ashin Wirathu has grown more and more provocative. Instead, the president himself, among other senior politicians, has publicly lent the demagogic monk his support.

Maintaining past form, when news broke of the events in Du Chee Ya Tan, Naypyidaw issued a stern denial that a massacre had taken place. Hmuu Zaw, spokesman for President Thein Sein tweeted: “#Myanmar govt has strongly rejected that mob kills more than dozen muslims, news from#AP . And warned that false news fuelling conflict.”

The deputy information minister, Ye Htut, told the press: “We have no information on killings.” He later suggested that the reports of violence may have been an attempt by the Rohingya to cover up the murder of a police officer.

Reading these statements, redolent of desperation as they seemed, it was difficult to resist the suspicion that such denials were prompted by the fact that the state risked being implicated in an atrocity.

What made it even harder to take such statements seriously was their similarity to past government declarations that evinced blatant, inciteful, anti-Rohingya bias.During the first outbreak of anti-Rohingya violence in June, Zaw announcedon Facebook that “Rohingya terrorists” had crossed the border into Rakhine state, adding “we will eradicate them until the end!. …We don’t want to hear any… any talk of justice nor want anyone to teach us like a saint.” The comment provoked outrage and was later removed by the author.

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Ye Htut’s invocation of Rohingya conspiracy over this latest event was followed by a report in the state-run paper “The New Light of Myanmar” which was headlined “AP, Irrawaddy falsely reports violence occurred in Rakhine State.”

Articles published during the pogroms in 2012 by government-controlled media placed the blame for the violence in Rakhine state on Rohingya “terrorists”.

Such behaviour, all of it on record, appears to contradict Naypyidaw’s attempts to present itself as a neutral party in relation to the religious violence in the country and public claims of committed peace-promotion.

The need for accountability

While the last year-and-a-half’s spate of anti-Muslim assaults may well be an organic by-product of Myanmar’s reforms, as has been argued cogently by some, the trends outlined above nonetheless beg for closer scrutiny, not least because they point toward apparent government disregard or even tacit acquiescence to persisting crimes which they say they wish to halt.

This is particularly so in the context of the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, who, experts have judged to be at serious risk of genocide, in no small part due to state policy, which reflects a long-running, unconcealed contempt for the minority.

While probity of these issues is urgently required, it will be difficult to have faith in any potential internal reviews commissioned by Naypyidaw; rather, it is high time that a full investigation be undertaken under the authority of the United Nations.

The need for all this is, in my view, self-evident; the question remains: Will Myanmar’s new international friends have the courage to call for this before more monstrous crimes and vapid denials come to pass?

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict. He has produced work for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Statesman and Souciant Magazine, among others. 

Follow him on Twitter: @EmanuelStoakes