Official response to riots last year was deeply flawed and probably racist
Some people had hoped the government inquiry into violence in Rakhine state would be an opportunity for Myanmar to show the world it has graduated from the rigid mindset imposed on the nation during decades of military dictatorship.
But sadly, the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has missed a chance to show the world that it has maturity to expose the violence in the western state for what it really is.
The Thein Sein government recently released a report by a state-appointed panel into the violence in June and October last year. International observers were hoping that this long-delayed report would show that Myanmar is prepared to address the issue of race relations head on. But in the end, the report was little more than a cop-out.
Besides the fact that it said nothing about sentiment about the Rohingya, there were no suggestion on how the country should address this issue in a meaningful manner.
The rioting mobs in Rakhine state must be tickled pink to see the Rohingyas referred to throughout the report as “Bengalis”, a derogatory term used to challenge the legitimacy of their claim to be an ethnic nationality – one of more than 130 – living within Myanmar’s nation-state.
The Rohingyas’ problem stems from the fact that Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Act basically denied them any form of citizenship. The government-appointed, 27-member commission suggested that the government should “examine” the citizenship status of people in Rakhine state. But by the look of it, this is an open-ended suggestion that may never see the light of day.
There was another suggestion which also seemed racist, saying that the Rohingyas be given “family-planning education” because they “breed too much”.
Just as worrying was the recommendation that the government should continue to keep Rohingya Muslims separate from Sittwe and other major Rakhine-majority towns. Safety was cited as the explanation but according to international observers who visited these areas, “the idea is to deny the Muslims the property on which they lived.”
What about reintegrating communities affected by the riots? Dream on, the observers said, pointing to the fact that the government already has less desirable plots of land for the Muslims. So their move to temporary shelters now looks like becoming permanent segregation.
If the government can’t even acknowledge the root cause of the problem, while at the same time ignores the issue of discrimination and accountability, what hope does Myanmar has in becoming a responsible player in the regional and international community?
There was other criticism aside from the fact the government took so long to reach a conclusion, and coming up with recommendations that are off-base or counter-productive. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said: “The recommendation to double the local security force size in [Rakhine state], for instance, completely overlooks the fact that these forces were complicit in the violence that led to the commission being appointed in the first place. That raises strong questions about the objectivity and intentions of the report authors.
“There is simply no doubt that local security forces were complicit in the violence, in some cases taking part in the violence directly or else standing by as Buddhist mobs attacked Rohingya people. If you don’t offer any criticism of the fact that no one has been arrested or held accountable for this violence, there is clearly something wrong with your report,” he said.
HRW said the ethnic violence, which saw hundreds killed and more than 120,000 people forced to flee their homes, was a crime against humanity.
According to Myanmar government figures, more than 8,600 homes were also destroyed. Most troubling is the fact that the more than 100,000 people displaced were Rohingyas and other Muslims. They deserve better than this from a country that aspires to be the regional head of Asean next year.