BANGKOK — Welcoming the ongoing visit by UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana to Burma, US-based Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that the Naypyidaw government failed to do enough to prevent June mob fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in troubled Arakan State.
“We heard the same quote, the government could have stopped this, from different people, on different days, one Rohingya, one Arakanese,” said HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson speaking at the Bangkok launch of a report based on interviews and field research in Burma and Bangladesh.
The document outlines that while the Burmese armed forces stepped in to keep an uneasy peace between the two sides, elements of the security forces, such as local police and the NaSaKa—the border security force—either allowed attacks on Muslims or participated in violence.
Echoing assessments heard by The Irrawaddy during a June visit to the state capital Sittwe, HRW said that not only Rohingya Muslims were targets of Arakanese violence, but that other Muslim groups in the area were affected as well.
“Marauding mobs from both Arakan and Rohingya communities stormed unsuspecting villages and neighborhoods, brutally killed residents and destroyed and burned homes, shops and houses of worship,” read one section of the report.
“With little to no government security present to stop the violence, people armed themselves with swords, spears, sticks, iron rods, knives and other basic weaponry. Inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda fanned the violence.”
The situation on the ground in Arakan State remains peaceful but tense, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project NGO. “I am concerned, however, that the authorities are trying to create a show of calm in the region for the visit of the UN envoy,” she added.
Critics say anxiety on the ground is being fanned by exaggerated or unverifiable accounts of the extent of the violence and by mutual demonization.
“Some Rohingya and others overseas are claiming figures in excess of 20,000 dead and claiming genocide,” said Robertson. “We have found no evidence for these claims.”
Robertson said, however, that the government figure of 78 dead is likely to be an underestimate. “Four of the 57 interviews we carried out pointed to over 90 dead, just in those four cases,” he added.
While welcoming envoy Quintana’s visit to Arakan State, Robertson commented that the Burmese government has “so far prevented any independent international investigation.”
“The visit of Mr. Quintana is a start, but it is clear from statements in recent days that the government is somewhat in denial,” said Robertson. A July 30 press release by the Burmese government on the Arakan violence said that “Myanmar is a multi-racial and multi-religious country where people of different faiths have lived together in peace and harmony.”
The release was forwarded to international media by the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10 country regional bloc which Burma is due to chair in 2014.
However, Burma was designated a “country of particular concern” by the latest US State Department international religious freedom report, along with China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The report cited Burma’s refusal to grant citizenship rights to the Rohingya, who number around 800,000 and are deemed illegal Bengali immigrants by the government and many ordinary people.
“The Burmese government needs to urgently amend its citizenship law to end official discrimination against the Rohingya,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia section director. “President Thein Sein cannot credibly claim to be promoting human rights while calling for the expulsion of people because of their ethnicity and religion.”
The Arakan violence does not appear to be denting international enthusiasm for Burma’s reforms, however. At the height of the June violence, President Barak Obama announced that US firms could invest in Burma after suspending sanctions.
US Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told the Washington International Trade Association on Tuesday that “I do think from the conversations I’ve have had [with Myanmar leaders] that there is a general understanding if they were really to retreat from this, there would be a lot of social pressure against them.”