The latest incident of anti-Muslim violence shows the hollowness of authorities' commitment to reform and reconciliation
Myanmar authorities have responded to credible reports of a massacre of Rohingya villagers with denials and indignation. Far from helping to resolve the chronic ethno-religious conflict raging in the northwest state of Rakhine, this response will only further undermine the country’s ongoing reform process.
Last Friday Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry announced that reports by foreign media and international agencies of the massacre of more than 40 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine were based on unverified information and made unjustified accusations against authorities.
One of these reports came from the United Nations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said last Thursday she had received credible information that eight Rohingya Muslim men were attacked and killed in Du Char Yar Tan village by Rakhine locals on January 9.
The UN official said this incident was followed by a deadly clash on January 13 in the same village, which came after the reported kidnapping and killing of a police sergeant by Rohingya residents, according to witnesses and rights groups.
Rather than conducting an investigation, Myanmar authorities issued a statement the next day rejecting the UN report and offering their own version of events. It claimed the murders took place as part of a revenge attack by Buddhist villagers after a Rohingya mob attacked police on routine patrol on the night of January 13, leaving one sergeant missing. A subsequent search unearthed a bloodstained uniform, belt and boots, according to the statement.
The authorities did not mention the January 9 killings and instead shifted all blame for the violence onto the militant Muslim Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.
Last Friday UN Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos called for the Myanmar government to “immediately launch an impartial investigation”.
The United States and rights organisations also expressed concerns and called for action from Myanmar authorities to directly respond to the incident.
Sectarian conflict in Rakhine is not news to the international community. The problem has deep roots that have been spreading for some time. It made international headlines in June 2012 when deadly violence between local Rakhine Buddhists and their Muslim Rohingya neighbours – whom Myanmar authorities refer to as Bengalis – claimed more than 100 lives. Ensuing clashes have driven 110,000 people out of their homes and into refugee camps.
The communal conflict has also spread to other parts of the country, shattering decades of peace among Buddhist and Muslim communities. Groups of Buddhist-nationalist extremists have emerged to launch a series of anti-Muslim campaigns under the nose of the government. The Myanmar elite and government officials remain unsympathetic to the plight of Muslims – especially Muslim Rohingya – whom they regard as alien members of this predominantly Buddhist society.
The government under President Thein Sein, who since 2011 has championed reforms in the formerly military-ruled country, has made efforts to foster peace and reconciliation, but has failed to address the root causes of divisions.
To begin doing so, Myanmar authorities must forego their state of denial every time international media report on the Muslim Rohingya. Instead, Nay Pyi Taw needs to look deep inside its own governance and social structures and find solutions that will allow citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds to live peacefully together.