A humanitarian crisis in Burma (formally Myanmar) presents a challenge for the international community. While recent democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation have led to the lifting of decades old sanctions, crimes against humanity committed against Muslim minorities question the extent of Burma’s transition away from harsh military rule. Can Burma deliver justice on behalf of the nearly 130,000 Rohingya Muslims that have been displaced by ethnic violence? How can the international community help Burma solve the crisis of protecting the human rights of its non-citizen inhabitants?

In the last two years, Burma has emerged from decades of isolation and authoritarian rule. According to the BBC, the military junta that controlled the nation from 1962 to 2011 “stood accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labor, including children.” But two years of democratic reforms have brought Burma back into the international community and have led to hopes that its dubious human rights record will remain part of the past.

The installment of Thein Sein, a former general, to the Presidency in 2011 followed an election fraught with accusations of fraud. Nevertheless, President Sein’s government has instituted crucial reform measures. Honoring the President with a peace award, the International Crisis Group stated that these reforms included the “freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, liberalizing the press and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party.” Among the freed political prisoners is Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite this Burmese Spring, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded in western Burma, marring the nation’s humanitarian and human rights record in the post-reform era. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in late April 2013, ethnic tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya erupted in a wave of violence in June and October of 2012 in the western State of Rakhine. The report accuses Burmese security forces of allowing and even participating in crimes against humanity.

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority in Western Burma where the majority of inhabitants are Buddhist. According to the Burmese Government, the Muslim minority of Western Burma are the remnants of seasonal Bengali workers brought by the British Colonial rulers. As the HRW report explains, the modern roots of ethnic tension between the two groups probably dates back to the Second World War when the Rohingya backed the British Colonial rulers while the Rakhine’s supported the invading Japanese.

In response to the HRW report, the Burmese Government released its own findings denying any government involvement. Instead, the Government report characterizes the violence as purely communal between Rakhine Buddhists and “Bengalis.” As the report reveals, many Burmese continue to refer to the Rohingya as illegal “Bengalis.” The Rohingya are not one of Burma’s eight “national races,” leaving the Rohingya unable to obtain citizenship and the rights afforded Burmese nationals.

“All you can do is pray:” A Human Rights Watch report

The HRW report used over one hundred eyewitness reports to support claims that political and religious leaders in Rakhine State “planned, organized, and incited attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims with the intent to drive them from the state or relocate them from areas in which they had been residing.”

The violence broke out in early June 2012 following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in Kyaw Ne Maw Village. Clashes between Rakhine and Rohingya quickly spread to the local capital, Sittwe. In Sittwe, HRW found that government forces failed to prevent “arson attacks and killings” of Rohingya by Rakhine mobs and at times joined in the violence against the Muslim minority population. By the time President Sein called for a state of emergency on June 10, 75,000 Muslims had been displaced.

Security forces were again unable or unwilling to prevent the violence when it resumed in late October. This new wave left another 40,000 displaced and was punctuated by massacres such as in Maruk-U, where over 70 Muslims including 28 children were killed and buried in a mass grave.
The events of June and October 2012 left around 125,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), most of whom are Rohingya. The IDP camps suffer from “disturbing inadequacies… Thousands of children are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition, while tens of thousands are without sufficient shelter, food, water, and sanitation.” Many other Rohingya have fled by boat to Bangladesh.

The HRW report accuses President Sein’s government not only of failing to prevent violence, but also of making no attempt to deliver justice to those most responsible or to take steps to preempt future violence.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the founder of the Free Burma Coalition, Maung Zani, called theHRW report, “the best and most solidly researched report I have seen in the past ten years.” Responding to the HRW report, the Burmese government released its own long-awaited assessment of the violence.

The government report and the stateless Rohingya

According to the Inter Press Service, the Government’s official report on the violence placed “undue emphasis on strengthening security while almost completely ignoring issues of discrimination and accountability.” Moreover, the report “refers to the community as ‘Bengalis,’” and makes “derogatory comments about the community’s ‘high population growth rates.”

As John Sifton from Human Rights Watch noted, “There were some very offensive parts of this report, but none of those should detract from the realization that this was first and foremost a failure as a government investigation.”

The Government’s use of the term ‘Bengali’ exposes the “denial of citizenship to Rohingya,” which “HRW, UN Agencies and others have long recognized…as a root cause of violence in (Rakhine) State.” The Rakhine overwhelmingly support this denial because of what HRW found as a “fear among (Rakhine) of losing their cultural and ethnic identity to the Muslim population in (Rakhine) State.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera Dr. Aye Chan, a Rakhine and formerly exiled democracy advocate explained, “That is our ancestral land. We cannot share that land with alien immigrants… The State has the responsibility to protect Buddhism and the welfare of the people.” While Chan recognized that Muslim minorities ought to be afforded due human rights, he also noted “Sometimes we have to realize that the constitution and national sovereignty sometimes clash with human rights.”

International response

Burma has undoubtedly undergone crucial democratic and human rights developments as it transitions away from the grip of the brutal military junta that governed it for decades. While the international community has been quick to applaud these changes, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya require a moment of pause.

Many human rights commentators have criticized the EU for lifting all of its non-military sanctions against Burma. These sanctions, they argue, remain the most effective incentive to effect policy change in Burma, including issues of human rights. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has opted instead to extend its targeted sanctions for another year, citing concerns about the violence in Rakhine State.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s voice has failed to emerge throughout the humanitarian crisis of the stateless Rohingya. In an interview with the BBC, Nurul Islam called Suu Kyi “surprisingly silent.” The Nobel Peace Prize winner used human rights and humanitarian rhetoric to oppose the former military junta. As leader of Burma’s opposition party, Suu Kyi now faces an electorate composed primarily of Buddhists who continue to view the Rohingya as illegal ‘Bengalis.’

The nearly 140,000 Rohingya living in inadequate IDP camps now face the looming threat of Burma’s rainy season. Earlier this month, HRW and other humanitarian aide groups urged the Burmese Government to relocate tens of thousands of displaced persons currently residing in flood prone areas. According to Al Jazeera, one emergency evacuation came too late as a rescue boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya capsized in the turbulent waters of the approaching Cyclone Mahasen. Many more thousands of Rohingya will be in danger later this week when Mahasen is expected to make landfall.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has reported that anti-Muslim rioting has spread from Rakhine toward central Burma. The plight of the Rohingya, and other minorities in Burma, will likely rest on how the international community responds to the failure of Burma’s young civilian government to protect the human rights of the stateless people in Burma.