Rakhine state, in western Myanmar – also known as Burma – is among the most dangerous places in the world to be a Muslim.
Just more than a year ago, simmering tensions and small-scale clashes erupted into mass violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya, a minority of about 800,000 whose roots in Burma are several centuries old. During these rampages, Buddhist mobs stormed Muslim enclaves, setting fire to villages, destroying schools and mosques and leaving scores dead.
One victim was Ayessa, a 55-year-old woman who lived in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Her husband and brother were killed, and she was forced to flee her home for a displaced persons’ camp.
She sought to leave Myanmar on a boat with her two young granddaughters and other relatives but was turned back by Myanmar authorities. She was returned to one of the camps, where displaced Rohingya continue to be confined a year after the violence, cut off from nearly all goods and services.
The September United Nations humanitarian bulletin reports that 180,000 people in camps and segregated communities in Rakhine state need life-saving assistance – nearly all are Muslim, and a majority, about 103,000, are children. Yet humanitarian agencies increasingly are obstructed from reaching those in need.
The anti-Rohingya violence has since affected other Muslims in Myanmar. A key catalyst for the violence is the rising influence of the 969 movement, a campaign led by Buddhist monks that preaches religious purity and urges boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses.
The threat of future violence is acute against all Muslims in Myanmar but particularly the Rohingya. Burma’s 1982 citizenship law does not include the Rohingya among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, so they are essentially stateless. They are widely reviled throughout Myanmar as illegal immigrants. They must obtain official approval to marry and to travel, even to neighboring villages; in some areas, they are prohibited from having more than two children. Many Rohingya, including children, have been forced to work without pay for government and military authorities. Rohingya routinely face arbitrary arrest and detention, confiscation of property, and physical and sexual violence.
Perhaps most outrageous amid this violence against Rohingya and other Muslims has been the tacit support of Myanmar authorities. Investigations by Physicians for Human Rights and others have found that Buddhist monks and local politicians incited and led many of the attacks.
State security forces have failed or refused to stop incidents of violence and sometimes participated in it. While hundreds of Muslims have been jailed for supposedly instigating the violence, few perpetrators have been arrested. There is little risk to those who attack Muslims.
In the past few years, Myanmar has made remarkable progress on political reform. But in his final report last month as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana called attention to the profound crisis in Rakhine state and expressed concern that the de facto segregation of Burmese Muslim communities would become permanent.
The Myanmar government’s eagerness to attract foreign investment and aid provides opportunities for the international community to encourage and assist in protecting all of Myanmar’s peoples from crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Largely in response to outside pressure, members of Myanmar’s government have signaled their intention to address the plight of the Rohingya; President Thein Sein visited Rakhine state last month for the first time since the violence started in 2012 and offered soothing words.
But there has been little progress toward easing the suffering of the Rohingya or protecting Muslims from further discrimination and violence.
Pro-democracy leaders have been passive in the face of the anti-Muslim violence. Without greater initiative from Myanmar’s leaders and vigilance from its friends abroad, the mix of religious nationalism, ethnic violence and state complicity could yet reap catastrophic violence, which would be disastrous for the entire nation.