Human Rights Groups Decry Burma’s Communal strife

By Khin Maung Win 27 October 2012

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SITTWE — Western Burma appeared calm Saturday after almost a week of deadly communal strife, a government spokesman said as human rights groups called for action to end the violence that one said it has documented with satellite imagery.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing there were no immediate reports of fresh clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities.

State television reported Friday night that 67 people had died, 95 been injured and 2,818 houses were burned down from Sunday through Thursday in seven of the state’s townships. Win Myaing had earlier stated the death toll as 112, but later explained that had been a mistaken tally.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued separate statements calling for more government action to protect lives. Human Rights Watch released satellite photos that it said showed extensive destruction in a predominantly Rohingya area of one of the townships where violence was reported.

In June, ethnic violence in Rakhine killed at least 90 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. About 75,000 have been living in refugee camps ever since. Curfews have been in place in some areas since the earlier violence and were extended in scope this past week.

“These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, Isabelle Arradon, said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch asserted in its statement that the Rohingya have suffered the brunt of the violence.

It quoted the group’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, as saying Burma’s government urgently needs to provide security for the Rohingya. He added, “Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse.”

Human Rights Watch said the true death toll may be higher than that officially reported, based on witnesses’ accounts and a history of government undercounting in cases that might reflect badly on it.

The Rohingya face grass-roots and official discrimination. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both highlighted a 1984 law that effectively deprives most Rohingya of citizenship and denies them many basic civil rights.

Human Rights Watch released before-and-after satellite photos that it said showed the destruction of a Rohingya neighborhood in the coastal town of Kyaukpyu, where arson attacks reportedly took place Wednesday.

“The area of destruction measures 35 acres and includes 633 buildings and 178 houseboats and floating barges adjacent on the water, all of which were razed,” said Human Rights Watch.

President Thein Sein’s reformist government has described the violence as an obstacle to development. He took office as an elected president last year, and has instituted economic and political liberalization after almost half a century of repressive military rule.

“As the international community is closely watching Burma’s democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country,” said a statement from the office of President Thein Sein published Friday in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper.

The long-brewing conflict is rooted in a dispute over the Rohingyas’ origins. Although many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The UN estimates their population in Burma at 800,000, but the government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.

A statement issued Thursday by the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Burma authorities “to take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness.”

“If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized,” it said.

The crisis has proven a major challenge to Thein Sein’s government and to opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized by some outsiders as failing to speak out strongly against what they see as repression of the Rohingya.

The UN warned Thursday that the crisis had sent a new wave of refugees to seek shelter in camps already overcrowded from the June violence.

Human Rights Watch deplored conditions in the camps, which it said housed many Rohingya who were denied access to adequate humanitarian aid and vulnerable to attack.