By Giulia Zino
On 28 July 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for an independent investigation into reported human rights violations perpetrated by state security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during the latest wave of sectarian violence which began in May. UN observers claim security forces purposely targeted members of the Muslim minority instead of quelling unrest – allegations the government in Naypyidaw strongly denies. Several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented systematic abuses committed by security forces in Rakhine in May and June 2012, while earlier in June, the EU had praised the handling of the crisis by state security forces as ‘measured’ and ‘appropriate’. The UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, arrived in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on 31 July for a fact-finding mission but has yet to make any public comment on his trip. It is likely that Quintana also held talks with authorities regarding the status of five UN workers still under detention for ‘questioning’ in the country. Another five international workers from Doctors Without Borders are also still held in connection with the unrest. They are broadly accused of inciting violence although charges against them have yet to be formalised (the government has turned down requests by the UN to explain why they were arrested).
While the situation has somewhat improved from the first days of the violence, a state of emergency remains in place – a reminder of the fragile state of many of Myanmar’s regions, despite recent political reforms. Violent unrest in Rhakine state broke out between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority in May 2012. Deep-rooted tensions between the two communities escalated quickly over the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl, which was blamed on Muslims. In response, Buddhists attacked a group of Muslims travelling by bus, killing ten of them. The official death-toll as of late June stood at 78 fatalities, according to government estimates, although the figure could be significantly higher. At least 3,000 houses were set alight during the riots and around 80,000 people were displaced.
The civilian government’s failure to improve the human security situation in Rakhine state, and allegations that it is in fact exacerbating ethnic tensions by taking sides, underlines the continuing complicity and security risks for business. These risks are particularly relevant as businesses look to enter or return to Myanmar after the suspension of EU and US sanctions in the first half of 2012. Rohingyas continue to face legal discrimination and lack access to basic services as they are ineligible for gaining citizenship (the group is not formally recognised under the 1982 Citizenship Law). In Myanmar, Rohingyas are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but they are also not recognised as citizens by the Bangladeshi government. Decades of discrimination and abuses have resulted in some 500,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh, where they have also become victims of arrests, illegal expulsion and internment by security forces. At least 90,000 others who attempted to enter Bangladesh in the most recent spate of violence were denied access, despite calls from the international community for Dhaka to do so. Bangladesh stopped granting refugee status to Rohingyas in 1993.
The condition of Rohingyas has historically been low in the international agenda, and as yet they have seen no benefit from recent reforms. The civilian government that came into power in March 2011 has instead prioritised Myanmar’s other ethnic-populated regions, such as Shan, Chin, Kachin, and Kayin, where armed struggles have been ongoing since independence. Ceasefires were signed between most armed groups and the government in 2011 and early 2012, with the only exception being the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Critics claim that the government’s dedication in resolving ethnic tensions may have been rooted only in a bid to win back international acceptance. Reflecting the low priority of the Rohingyas’ plight, opposition leader and pro-democracy symbol Aung San Suu Kyi herself has yet to comment on the violence in Rakhine, and made no specific mention of the Rohingyas in her parliamentary speech on 25 July, during which she urged respect for the rights of ethnic minorities. When asked the week before whether the Citizenship Law should be amended to grant equal rights to the Muslim minority, she answered, ‘I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them’.
After suspending sanctions, however, Western governments have now felt compelled to call on Naypyidaw to address the long-standing issue although their calls have received little attention in Naypyidaw. However, there has been no mention of sanctions being re-imposed should the government fail to do so. Popular protests have taken place in Muslim-majority countries (such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and others) in support of Rohingyas but only the Indonesian government has taken a formal stance by urging the international community and the government of Myanmar to protect the Rohingyas.
There are concerns that renewed ethnic violence in Rakhine state may derail the reform process currently underway in Myanmar. It is even conceivable that hardliners within the military who are opposed Myanmar’s reforms might be intentionally stirring up ethnic tensions in Rakhine state to prove that the new reformist civilian government is unable to maintain peace and stability. An escalation of violence could provide an excuse for the army to intervene in Rakhine militarily – undermining the credibility of the government in Naypyidaw and potentially halting the course of reforms.