UN envoy visits Myanmar as ethnic clashes test reforms

UN envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana is visiting Myanmar in the wake of recent fighting between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslims. Some accuse the government of fanning tensions.

Khin Maung Win/AP
United Nations human rights expert Tomas Ojea Quintana (c.) talks to journalists upon his arrival to a press briefing on situation in Rakhine state, in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, July 30. Quintana is spending today and tomorrow in the area as part of a fact-finding visit to assess reforms that have seen the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the US and Myanmar.

As a UN human rights envoy visits the troubled western Myanmar state of Rakhine, recent ethnic fighting there and the government's response to it could raise doubts about the recent relaxation of Western economic sanctions.

Tomas Ojea Quintana is spending today and tomorrow in the area as part of a fact-finding visit to assess reforms that have seen the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the US and Myanmar. But overshadowing those changes is recent mob fighting between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslims Rohingyas in the northern part of Rakhine state that has led to accusations of discriminatory action against Muslims by the government.

June clashes displaced some 80,000 people and left 78 dead, according to government figures, and prompted President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency in the region. Subsequently, he floated the idea of a mass deportation of 800,000 or so Muslim Rohingyas.

The UN refugee agency dismissed that proposal. UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says that of the 80,000 people displaced by the fighting, around 50,000 are Muslim and 30,000 are Rakhine. “The situation on the ground is tense but calm,” she says, adding that “some of the Rakhine displaced have started to return to their homes in recent days.”

International human rights groups have long said that Myanmar discriminates against the Rohingya, who are neither recognized as an ethnic minority by the government nor allowed citizenship under a 1982 law. Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said during a June visit to Europe that she did not know if Rohingya – who are often described as Bengalis by other Burmese – were entitled to Myanmar citizenship.

The violence started after a Rakhine woman was raped and murdered on May 28, with three Muslim men accused. This was followed by the lynching of 10 Muslims by a Buddhist mob on June 3, and then, on June 8, riots by Muslims in the town of Muangdaw. The tit-for-tat violence then reached regional capital Sittwe, whose Muslim population largely emptied out.

Myanmar Army detachments have kept an uneasy peace since mid June, though there are allegations of partiality in favor of the Rakhine, who, like Myanmar's majority Burmans, are mostly Buddhist. On July 27, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that “We have been receiving a stream of reports from independent sources alleging discriminatory and arbitrary responses by security forces, and even their instigation of and involvement in clashes.”

Similarly, according to a July 19 statement by Amnesty International, “Myanmar’s Border Security Force (nasaka), Army, and police have conducted massive sweeps in areas that are heavily populated by Rohingyas. Hundreds of mostly men and boys have been detained, with nearly all held incommunicado, and some subjected to ill-treatment.”

Myanmar's government denies wrongdoing, and a July 30 Myanmar government press release on Rakhine state, which is near the Bangladesh border, said that “Myanmar strongly rejects the accusations made by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation.”

Rakhine is a strategically important part of Myanmar. Offshore, in the Bay of Bengal, is one of Myanmar's major gas finds. The Shwe field is set to come online in 2013 with the government possibly earning around $30 billion in gas sales to China, according to the Shwe Gas Movement.

Once an independent kingdom

Formerly known as Arakan, Rakhine was home to an independent Buddhist Arakanese kingdom for centuries prior to Burmese annexation in 1784, which was followed by British colonial rule in the 19th century. While international observers have claimed collusion between the Myanmar authorities and Rakhine mobs, Rakhine politicians have blamed the Myanmar authorities for allowing “Bengali Muslims” to illegally enter Myanmar, allegedly as part of a government ploy to weaken Rakhine nationalism.

“The Bengali Rohingya have used the recent situation to get more sympathy from the international community,” says Wong Aung, a Thailand-based Rakhine working for the Shwe Gas Movement, who says that his cousin was killed outside Rakhine regional capital Sittwe during the June violence.

As Myanmar opens up, new-found freedom of speech has facilitated an upsurge in vitriolic and often racist comments in Myanmar's mainstream media and online. Echoing president Thein Sein's views there have been widespread calls for Rohingya, whom many Rakhine and other Burmese regard as illegal immigrants, to be expelled, and worse.

Assessing Muslim views of the recent conflict, Singapore-based Burmese analyst Kyaw San Wai wrote recently that “The Burmese are portrayed as inherently racist and Islamophobic, and the argument is unfortunately strengthened by acerbic online responses from Burmese netizens.”

In turn, Kyaw San Wai said “The Arakanese and Burmese have labeled the Rohingya rioters as terrorists operating on the instructions of Al Qaeda,” something Kyaw San Wai sees as far-fetched. Nonetheless the June clashes have caught the attention of Muslims elsewhere, including extremists, and last week the Pakistani Taliban demanded that Islamabad shut down relations with Myanmar, threatening that “otherwise we will not only attack Burmese interests anywhere but will also attack the Pakistani fellows of Burma one by one.”

Suspicion of outsiders

As well as attacking Rohingya, Rakhine groups have threatened aid workers, alleging that international NGOs and UN agencies are funded by Islamic groups and therefore are biased in favor of Muslims. Dismissing such claims, Vivian Tan says that “we have stressed that we are impartial and neutral,” adding that UNCHR is delivering aid to both Buddhists and Muslims.

Nonetheless three local UNHCR staff were arrested in the aftermath of the June violence along with workers from NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders. “We have not had access to them [the UNHCR staff], we do not know where they are being detained, and we do not have any information on what they have been charged with,” says spokesperson Tan.

Upping the sectarian ante, Rakhine's Buddhist monks – who in 2007 were at the forefront of protests against military rule in Myanmar – have instigated a boycott of Rohingya, urging Buddhists to shun even those languishing in camps and needing aid.

Most Rohingya now fear venturing outside the camps for food and supplies, a situation compounded by the monks' boycott, which in turn prompted mostly-Buddhist Burmese soldiers to stop assisting camp-bound Rohingya by procuring food in off-limits local markets, according to Human Rights Watch, which will release a lengthy report on the June violence Aug. 1.

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