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Opinion

Obama must hold Myanmar's Thein Sein accountable for human rights violations

When President Obama meets with President Thein Sein of Myanmar (Burma) today, he should emphasize Washington’s commitment to Myanmar’s progress, while stressing the importance of preventing discrimination and violence against ethnic minority Muslims and Christians.

By William ShawOp-ed contributor, M. Zuhdi JasserOp-ed contributor, Azizah al-HibriOp-ed contributor / May 20, 2013

President Obama stands next to Myanmar's President Thein Sein during a photo session at the East Asia Summit in Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2011. Op-ed contributors write: 'Due to the continued violence targeting religious and ethnic minorities, our organization, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, recommends that the US maintain Myanmar’s status as a “country of particular concern”.'

Charles Dharapak/AP/File

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When the president of Myanmar (Burma), Thein Sein, meets with President Obama at the White House today, he will undoubtedly stress how his government has taken steps toward democratic reform. Indeed, in recent years, Myanmar has released hundreds of religious and political prisoners. It has eased Internet and media controls. It has held limited parliamentary elections.

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But recent applause for reforms obscures a dark underbelly of sectarian violence and ethnic discrimination, fueling human-rights atrocities and religious-freedom abuses, which threaten to tear the country asunder. These are the conclusions that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, documented in its 2013 Annual Report released on April 30. 

In his meeting with Mr. Thein Sein, Mr. Obama can emphasize Washington’s commitment to Myanmar’s progress, while stressing the imperative of countering discrimination and violence against ethnic minority Muslims and Christians. Such violations of human rights threaten to strangle reform in its cradle and religious freedom along with it. 

Few suffer like the Rohingya Muslims, one of the world’s most persecuted people. Denied citizenship and discriminated against at every turn, they face continued violence in the country’s western Rakhine (Arakan) state. This violence is often instigated by monks and perpetrated by mobs and local militias, including police.

Based on sources within and outside of Myanmar, our report confirms that over the past year, attackers have torched villages and killed more than 1,000 civilians, while driving more than 100,000 into squalid refugee camps where they are routinely denied adequate food, medical aid, and shelter from the oncoming monsoons. Women have reportedly been raped and used as sex slaves by the military and local militias and police have blocked aid to the destitute.

Christians, particularly the Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities, have also endured severe religious freedom abuses and societal discrimination, including restrictions on building houses of worship, destruction of religious venues and artifacts, bans on certain religious ceremonies, and efforts to press their children to embrace Buddhism. In renewed violence in Kachin state in January, the military targeted Christians for rape and forced labor through kidnapping.

Indeed, across the country, the government has failed to halt the military’s depredations or hold individuals accountable for sectarian violence. It also continues to censor religious publications and ban the importing of Bibles and Qurans in indigenous languages.

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