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Burma Government Must Prevent Ongoing Communal and Religious Violence by Tackling Impunity

By Burma Partnership  •  August 26, 2013

QuintanaThis week, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, reported that during his recent 10-day official mission to Burma his convoy was besieged by anti-Muslim protestors in Meikhtila, Mandalay Region, the scene of anti-Muslim violence in March of this year. However, the week’s unrest did not stop there: a few days later, Buddhist mobs burnt down dozens of shops and homes belonging to Muslims in Kantbalu, Sagaing Region, after a Muslim man was arrested for allegedly attempting to rape a Buddhist woman. Unfortunately, such incidents in Burma are nothing new: 2013 has seen outbreaks of religious and communal violence afflicting increasing numbers of towns across the country. Violence flared up most notably in Meikhtila on 20 March, lasting for more than a week, and also on 28 and 29 May in Lashio, Shan State, where one Muslim was killed and four Buddhists injured, and on 29 May in Mone, Kyauk Gyi Township, Pegu Region, where mobs destroyed a mosque and a madrasa. In addition, nearly 250,000 people, the majority of whom are Muslims, have been displaced by the violence across the country thus far.

In his statement from Rangoon International Airport at the end of his visit, Quintana said that he was “left totally unprotected by the nearby police”, which gave him “an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs during the violence last March as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people”. Such police inaction – or even complicity – is a recurring theme in several of the instances of communal or religious violence. Security forces are understood to have intervened in this week’s violence in Sagaing Region, but not before at least 20 homes, over a dozen shops and a rice mill were set on fire and destroyed.

On 20 August, Physicians for Human Rights released a report titled “Patterns of Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma: A Call for Accountability and Prevention”, which documents the recent wave of violence against Muslims throughout Burma. The report points to the government of Burma’s failure to address human rights violations, which in turn has given rise to increasing instances of violence and rights violations, and identifies patterns emerging from the violence. The report also documents multiple occasions when police and/or the Burma Army attacked Muslim communities or watched as they were attacked, instead of protecting them, an allegation that is supported by Quintana’s experiences in Meikhtila. According to Dr. Holly Atkinson, one of the report’s authors, the government of Burma “has not only failed to protect vulnerable groups, but has created a dangerous culture of impunity that fuels human rights violations.”

In the absence of a principled, determined and robust response from the government of Burma, manifested in strong local policing, communities will feel that they can vent their frustrations and air inter-religious and inter-communal hostilities with impunity. Equally, those who incite such violence will feel empowered to continue doing so, in the knowledge that they will face no consequences from the state. In response to recent events in Sagaing Region, radical monk Wirathu blamed Muslims for the violence, using the derogatory and thus inflammatory term “kalar”: “Kalars are troublemakers. When a kalar is there, the problem will be there. If every time a kalar made trouble and people responded with violence, both Buddhists and Buddhism will be harmed.”

The government of Burma must ensure that those who perpetrate or incite violence or discrimination on religious – or any other – grounds must be brought to account in accordance with domestic and international standards of due legal process. It is also vital that the root causes of the religious and communal violence are addressed, namely rising Buddhist nationalism, a lack of rule of law, and wider discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Furthermore, opposition democratic leaders and the international community must denounce such impunity and pressure the government of Burma to take immediate action. In order to safeguard Burma’s transition to a truly peaceful and democratic country, in which the human rights of everyone are respected, there must be national reconciliation. Genuine reconciliation in Burma means the end of religious and ethnic discrimination, and the dawn of respect for religious and ethnic diversity. Such genuine reconciliation cannot be achieved so long as impunity prevails.

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