Myanmar's ruler to get peace prize, despite 'ethnic cleansing' charge

On the same day that Myanmar's president is set to receive a peace award, Human Rights Watch accused his government of failing to stop ethnic cleansing carried out against ethnic Rohingya.

Yves Logghe/AP
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, right, and President of Myanmar Thein Sein, address the media after they met at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, in March.

Are parts of the international community rushing too fast to reward Myanmar's regime for its promises of fast democratization and an end to military-backed rule?

If the confluence between the International Crisis Group's plan to give its "In Pursuit of Peace" award to Myanmar President U Thein Sein later today and a new Human Rights Watch report on ethnic cleansing against ethnic Rohingya are anything to go by, then the answer is yes.

The contrast is so striking, that one has to wonder if Human Rights Watch timed the report to coincide with the gala party that the International Crisis Group (ICG) is planning to host for President Thein Sein later today at the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York City, and with a scheduled lifting of all but arms sanctions against Myanmar (also known as Burma) from the European Union

The ICG party is to be hosted by ICG President Louise Arbour, a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and a past lead prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, and is scheduled to praise the Myanmar president as a far-thinking humanitarian.

"Since taking office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein of Myanmar has pioneered a historic transformation of his country with bold reform initiatives," the ICG said on its website. "His leadership has seen decisive action towards improving Myanmar’s relations with the political opposition and liberalising past repressive laws."

While there have been some reforms in the past year, Human Rights Watch probably doesn't agree with the honor for Thein Sein. Their report, which came out today, blames elements in his government and Bhuddist monks for carrying out a systematic campaign to cleanse Rohingya Muslims from the country's Rakhine State last year.

"The October attacks were against Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities and were organized, incited, and committed by local Arakanese political party operatives, the Buddhist monkhood, and ordinary Arakanese, at times directly supported by state security forces," Human Rights Watch wrote. "Rohingya men, women, and children were killed, some were buried in mass graves, and their villages and neighborhoods were razed."

Where was the Myanmar central government in all this? According to Human Rights Watch:

"While the state security forces in some instances intervened to prevent violence and protect fleeing Muslims, more frequently they stood aside during attacks or directly supported the assailants, committing killings and other abuses. In the months since the violence, the Burmese government of President Thein Sein has taken no serious steps to hold accountable those responsible or to prevent future outbreaks of violence."

The attacks displaced about 125,000 Rohingya and other Myanmar Muslims from their homes and have been part of an effort to have the Rohingya, the descendants of laborers who arrived in the country from what is now Bangladesh, removed from the country. Hostility toward the Rohingya is common within Myanmar's Burman and Buddhist majority. In July of 2012, Thein Sein called expelling "illegal" Rohingya from Myanmar was the "only solution" to ethnic tensions in Rakhine state.

That is not reassuring. Meanwhile, normalization with Myanmar continues apace, with a growing community of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations like the International Crisis Group with a stake in proclaiming success. I wrote in November about the Obama administration's fast embrace of Thein Sein:

Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one.

The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.

The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy.

But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.

Concerns about that remain.

Many ethnic Burmans view the Rohingya as interlopers who have recently arrived and whose competition for jobs and economic opportunities are unwelcome. But many if not most Rohingya, whose families have lived in the country for generations, have nevertheless not been able to obtain citizenship and are basically stateless. By some estimates 800,000 people in this community are in this predicament, and regional governments in Southeast Asia are bracing for an onslaught of refugee boat people if the situation continues.

In Indonesia, there have already been signs of trouble.

Human Rights Watch key, and most troubling, charge is the level of local government collusion in the recent violence there in October 2012. While the first outbreak of attacks against Rohingya in July seemed spontaneous, the organization says the October attacks seemed planned by local political groups, and abetted by government forces.

In October, "Instead of preventing the attack by the Arakanese mob or escorting the villagers to safety, (Myanmar police and soldiers) assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves," Human Rights Watch wrote. "“First the soldiers told us, ‘Do not do anything, we will protect you, we will save you,’ so we trusted them,” a 25-year- old survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But later they broke that promise. The Arakanese beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them."

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