Ethnic Violence and Arresting UN Workers: Myanmar Backslides

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Kimberly Curtis to UN Dispatch. Kimberly is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Her primary focus on human rights, transitional justice and international affairs. — Mark 

Since the historic democratic parliamentary elections in April, Myanmar has seen the world’s opinion of them shift for the first time in decades. No longer an international pariah, the moderate reforms enacted since 2010 have been enough to see sanctions eased, diplomatic ties reestablished and Western businesses reentering the country.

But this does not mean that all is well in Myanmar. The oppression of ethnic minorities has long been a part of Myanmar’s history, but recent developments in Rakhine State where ethnic violence broke out last month between the Muslim Rohingya minority and the Buddhist Rakhine majority demonstrates the devastating consequences such oppression can have and how much more is needed from the Myanmar government.

The trigger for the violence appears to be the rape and murder of a local Rakhine woman in late May. After police arrested three Rohingya men, a mob of Rakhine Buddhists pulled ten Muslim pilgrims off a bus and beat them to death in retaliation. From there, the violence spread throughout the province, testing the government’s resolve to contain racial tensions and continue enacting the reforms that have recently brought them such positive attention.

On those two criteria it appears that Myanmar is failing miserably. Although the government declared a state of emergency on June 10 and brought in the military to aid in security, it failed to halt the violence. Instead, Human Rights Watch reports that local security forces and the military are using the violence to justify further persecution of the Rohingya.

The government banned international observers from visiting Rakhine state, making accurate analysis of how bad the violence has been impossible. While the government places the total death count at 80, human rights organizations estimate that hundreds may have been killed so far. Similarly, the government estimates that 55,000 people have been displaced since the riots started while humanitarian agencies in Myanmar believe that number is closer to 100,000. Most of those killed and displaced are Rohingyas. As more and more of them flee to IDP camps, the conditions at those campscontinue to deteriorate to the point where some aid agencies are warning that mass starvation could become a reality in the near future.

Yet despite the increased need for emergency aid, the region is seeing aid agencies leave the area. Many aid agencies evacuated foreign staff as the violence escalated, and some are finding it difficult to receive government permission to return. For those who stayed, security remains a critical issue. A major cause for concern is the detention of ten local aid workers from the UN Refugee Agency, Doctors Without Borders and the World Food Program since late June, allegedly for “stimulating” the riots. Last week, the government criminally charged three of them, although the exact nature of the charges is unknown. Despite attempts by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to gain their release, the government continues to refuse international access to the prisoners or release details about the criminal case against them.

Instead, Myanmar President Thein Sien shared with Guterres his plan on how to fix the situation: make all one million of the Rohingyas leave the country or have them permanently settled in IDP camps. Since the Rohingya are not allowed Myanmar citizenship under a 1982 law, Sien’s view is that as a stateless people there is no reason why they should stay in Myanmar or fall under the government’s care. Needless to say, the idea has not garnered support from the UN, but with the reduced aid entering Rakhine State there is a fear that the government will continue to persecute and deny basic services to the Rohingya until they flee to neighboring Bangladesh, or simply die.

And these are just the problems in one small corner of the country. It is true that Myanmar has taken positive steps towards reform and there are high hopes that the progress continues as Western businesses begin to return and limitation on civil liberties are loosened. However, the events in Rakhine State over the last six weeks demonstrates that a leopard doesn’t change its spots, at least not overnight. The treatment of ethnic minorities remains a serious and chronic problem, as does the government’s negative attitude towards international agencies and international law. As Myanmar begins to reenter the larger international community, it is important to keep in mind that Western business contracts are not the only thing worth paying attention to.