The Burmese government said on Monday that the recent violence in Arakan State, western Burma, has been politicized internationally as religious oppression.
Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference in Rangoon on Monday where officials sought to explain the recent violence in Arakan State to diplomats, NGO workers, religious leaders and journalists in attendance.
“As victims of violence were both the Muslim and Buddhist communities, it is very clear that the riots are not linked to religious persecution,” read a statement released at the meeting.
“In reviewing incidents in Arakan State, it has been found that lawlessness was spread due to mistrust and religious differences that created hatred and vengeance against one another.”
At least 77 people have been killed, 109 injured and 4,822 houses destroyed since communal violence erupted at the start of June. In addition, 17 mosques, 15 monasteries and three schools were burnt down, according to official figures.
Some 14,328 Arakan Buddhists and 30,740 Rohingya Muslims have been affected and are currently living in 89 temporary camps, according to The New Light of Myanmar on Monday.
The state-run newspaper also said that Burma is a multi-religious country where Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus have been living together in peace and harmony for centuries; hence the Arakan incidents are neither because of religious oppression nor discrimination.
Nevertheless, the sectarian strife has drawn increased attention from Muslim communities across the globe in recent weeks with many groups condemning the Burmese government in its handling of the humanitarian situation.
As concerns over the matter grow across the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian archipelago, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said his government is closely monitoring the plight of the Rohingya community in Burma.
“Our stance is clear: we refuse and are against the discriminatory treatment of anyone anywhere,” Marty told reporters on Monday.
A group of activists in Pakistan also organized a protest on Sunday to condemn the perceived killing of Muslims in Burma and demanded that the UN immediately intervenes and holds an impartial inquiry into the matter, according to the Pakistan-based The News.
Last week, Pakistan’s fundamentalist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group also released an official statement calling on its government to cut relations with Burma and shut down the Burmese Embassy there in response to the alleged state-sponsored murder of Rohingyas.
However, Muslims in Burma have condemned the TTP over its threats. The All Myanmar Moulvi Organization, an umbrella group comprising five Burmese Islamic groups, said that Muslim communities have nothing to do with the Pakistan-based Taliban group.
“We don’t accept that Taliban group which is a terrorist organization. Muslim communities in Burma also have no connection with them,” Kyaw Soe, general secretary of the All Myanmar Moulvi Organization, told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Kyaw Soe added that the Arakan conflict should be handled internally and the Burmese government is a responsible actor that is trying to tackle the problem.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Monday, Raxhshinda Peervan, a Pakistani human rights activist based in Islamabad, said, “In the perspective of religion, nobody should be abused, nobody should be killed. I think even Aung San Suu Kyi is not happy with the new Burmese government which is still overwhelming controlled by the military-backed ruling party.”
However, she added that the TTP statement was not representative of Pakistani people as it is an extremist minority group which is not widely supported amongst the general population.
“The TTP is not recognized by the peace-loving people of Pakistan. They are a very small group. They are not friends of Pakistan,” said Peervan.
Dr. Jacques P. Leider, a French academic who studied Arakan history for 20 years, said, “It’s odd to see how extremists are hijacking the conflict in Rakhine [Arakan] in the name of their ideology. It will further polarize the viewpoints and distract from the real social issues involved.
“The Muslims in Rakhine have nothing to gain politically from enjoying rhetorical support from the fundamentalists.”
Some observers claim the Arakan violence has been manipulated by Burmese and international media, as well as individuals using social networks such as Facebook, to spread their own propaganda. Banning journalists from violence-affected areas only exacerbated the level of rumor and misinformation, it was noted.
Amnesty International claims that hundreds of Rohingyas have been killed, raped, beaten and arbitrarily arrested since Burma declared a state of emergency in Arakan State last month. The group also said security forces, including the police and the army, had conducted massive sweeps and detained hundreds of Rohingyas “incommunicado.”
On Tuesday, UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana toured the Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung near Bangladesh’s border and plans visit refugee camps in the state capital Sittwe on Wednesday to assess conditions there.
“Journalists may have a hard job to tackle the crisis because of lack of access to information, but many media focus overwhelmingly on the ‘Rohingya’ as the only victims of the conflict and on aspects of the humanitarian crisis and human rights problems,” said Leider. “That focus is increasingly resented by both ethnic Bamar and Rakhine who feel unfairly treated by the media.
“When so many articles only focus on the ‘Rohingya’ perspective, one can see it as a one-eyed reporting with no perception of the complex cultural background and dissident voices from the grass roots,” he added.