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This week’s outbreak of violence against Muslims in Lashio marks nearly a year of targeted attacks on Muslims in Burma. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) recently interviewed witnesses and victims in Arakan state, Mandalay and Saigaing divisions about the ongoing attacks, and found that the government places a low priority on protecting the human rights of ethnic groups in the country.
Earlier this month, a team of researchers from PHR spent ten days in central Burma investigating attacks on Muslim civilians. The team interviewed 33 people, including 14 eyewitnesses, and compiled a thorough account of the slaughter of at least 20 children and four teachers in Meikhtila, Mandalay division. Other reports estimate that many more were killed.
PHR researchers obtained video footage showing Muslims beaten and burned to death, and confirmed the authenticity of these events with GPS, satellite mapping and eyewitness interviews.
In Meikhtila, investigators found that police were complicit in the violence against Muslims ̶ they marched unarmed Muslims toward an armed civilian mob, then refused to protect them from beating, stoning, and murder; they did not help injured Muslims; and they failed to apprehend perpetrators. The police force’s actions in Meikhtila are in violation of the UN code of conduct for law enforcement officials, and the general lack of an effective response from the central government is a monumental failure to protect its citizens from organised and targeted violence.
In the wake of unspeakable violence carried out in a methodical manner by civilians with the acquiescence of local police, there must be a strong and swift response within Burma. Despite overtures about tolerance, there has been no credible effort thus far to investigate the massacre and hold perpetrators accountable.
The government’s weak response to stop the violence and its reluctance to help Muslim victims is a symptom of a larger problem—ethnic groups are not benefitting from fledgling democratic reforms. Despite some improvements at the political level, they are treated by the new government as they were by the previous regime. Although some analysts suggest the recent violence is a result of new freedoms and democratic reforms, it’s actually just the opposite — it is a continuation of abuses against ethnic groups that are done with impunity and either tacit or outright government approval.
The evidence PHR collected in Meikhtila shows a pattern of destruction indicative of targeted and coordinated strikes against Muslim-owned businesses, homes, and mosques, and coordinated efforts to drive Muslims out of the town. Although the government imposed curfews in some towns with threats of violence and arrested some perpetrators, the response has been insufficient. Police continue to respond too slowly to stop mobs, victims are targeted for arrest as often as perpetrators, Muslims are warned not to defend themselves against mobs, and there has been no effort to prosecute those behind the attacks. The government’s acquiescence sends a strong message that these attacks can be done with impunity.
The evidence does not suggest that the government orchestrated the attacks, but it does indicate that the government did not act effectively to curb the violence. As new reports of anti-Muslim violence emerge from other parts of the country, the central government as well as local police must do much more to stop the violence from spreading.
Unfortunately, institutionalised impunity has taken root across the country, not only in areas plagued by recent religious violence. In ethnic areas, the abuses have been ongoing for 60 years—military attacks on civilians, forced displacement, environmental destruction, and failure to provide humanitarian aid have not stopped. There has been no effective effort to rein in abuses or prosecute offenders.
One of the starkest examples of ongoing violence is in Kachin state, where the Burmese army has ignored orders from President Thein Sein to stop fighting, and continues to violate the human rights of civilians. Human rights groups have documented attacks on civilians in the state throughout the current conflict, which has raged since June 2011. Violence and impunity also persist in Shan state, where fragile ceasefires recently crumbled and civilians are once again being displaced by conflict. Long-running government abuses against Rohingya are now coming to the world’s attention, and violations of human rights against Arakanese, Chin, Karen and other groups have continued.
The international community has rewarded the government of Burma for its democratic reforms by lifting sanctions, increasing development aid, and forgiving loans. Yet Burma’s roadmap to democracy has yet to include ethnic groups, which make up at least 40 percent of the population. Though most of the sanctions and development concessions were made with the understanding that life for civilians is improving, progress has been far too slow for those in ethnic groups. The international community should not leave ethnic groups in Burma at the mercy of systematic attacks, and it must press for an end to ethnic violence and discrimination in diplomatic negotiations.
There will be no easy or quick transition to a peaceful Burma where ethnic and religious groups enjoy the fullest protections of their rights. Instilling a culture of tolerance across ethnic and religious lines and replacing impunity with accountability will not happen without concerted efforts by government actors as well as civil society leaders.
Perhaps the most difficult task facing the people of Burma today is the process of social reconciliation. After years of military dictatorship, rampant criminality, and a culture of violence, everyone must make the choice to end violence within their communities. Direction should come from recognized leaders within government and civil society, high-level religious leaders, and well-known democracy activists, who must condemn in unequivocal terms all ethnic and religious violence and hate speech.
There must also be an independent and transparent investigation of incidents of religiously motivated violence and discrimination with the ultimate aim of holding any perpetrators accountable. Other countries may be able to assist in these essential efforts, especially with the development of an independent investigation, but the will and the design for a society built on respect and tolerance must originate with the people of Burma.
Bill Davis is the former Burma project director and volunteer medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights and Andrea Gittleman works as the group’s senior legislative counsel.
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.