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Myanmar runs from problem

January 22, 2014

Myanmar has lost an opportunity with its stubborn resistance to an open discussion of its Rohingya problems with its Asean friends. On Jan 1, the country stepped into the international spotlight by taking the chair of Asean for the first time.

Within a week, the bloom was off that rose, as Nay Pyi Taw rejected a proposal to discuss the Rohingya.

Authorities in Myanmar can run from this problem, but they cannot hide from a situation in such plain view.

As if to underline this reality, reports emerged last week of yet more bloody and fatal clashes in eastern Myanmar, involving Rohingya. Villagers and a non-government organisation with staff in the region confirmed fighting and deaths.

Hundreds of people fled their homes to escape the violence. The battles took a far too familiar pattern, with Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim villagers, and not even sparing women and children.

The government's curious but familiar response was a carefully worded no-comment. "We have had no information about killings," Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told reporters at an Asean meeting of foreign ministers. He refused to divulge what information he did have, and waved waved aside further questions.

In the absence of information and access, rumours quickly took over.

Whether the civil strife in Rakhine state lasted for days or a couple of hours, no one can say. The number of deaths and injuries, and homes and buildings destroyed is a mystery. Reports emerging from the tightly controlled no-go zones for foreigners said 16 Muslims died, and that Myanmar security forces led the mobs who attacked them.

The Myanmar authorities are only exacerbating a serious, deadly situation. Because of ethnic disturbances in the Rakhine region, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been uprooted. Thousands have fled, putting heavy burdens on Myanmar's neighbours. It is similar to drugs in Myanmar; the government pleads it is unable to control the situation, but refuses to discuss possible ways to deal with it. The Rohingya are refused the right right of nationality, treated with abuse, and now are the targets of mob violence.

Myanmar has done nothing about most of this, despite the fact that its actions are the very root of an international problem that affect Thailand and other neighbours directly, and raise concerns around the world among those who value human rights.

The government of Myanmar has made progress in trying to throw off 38 years of brutal military rule. But many of the dictators in green remain in influential positions, and many unjust policies remain in place.

The government has not lifted a finger against the drug lords who flood Thailand with methamphetamines. It has not made peace with the ethnic groups who seem willing to end their anti-government struggles for independence if they receive respect. It continues to hold political prisoners. For these reasons and many more, Myanmar must be held accountable as well as given encouragement to continue its political advances.

The Myanmar leadership _ civilian, military and opposition members including Aung San Suu Kyi _ are out of line and far from the accepted world mainstream in their treatment of the Rohingya people. There is no better platform to raise and discuss the situation than among Asean neighbours. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations offers Myanmar sympathy and solutions, and President Thein Sein and his government should reconsider their rejection of such help.

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