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Press Myanmar to protect the Rohingya

(Photo: Kaung Htet/MSF)

By Dr Holly Atkinson
April 5, 2014

Last April, I joined Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in documenting a massacre of Muslim students and teachers at a boarding school in Meiktila, located in central Myanmar. After hiding from marauding bands all night, a desperate group of about 150 men, women, and children was told they would be escorted to police vehicles and taken to safety. Instead, police led them through a gauntlet of Buddhists — monks among them — who bludgeoned, stabbed, beheaded, and immolated scores of them, while crowds of onlookers clapped and shouted "Kill the Kalars" (a derogatory term for Muslims). Local officials and armed policemen stood on a nearby ridge and watched as dozens were killed. The sheer impunity with which community leaders, law enforcement, and the local citizens participated in this horrific slaughter haunts me to this day. 

There are unmistakable similarities between the Meiktila massacre and the recent rise in violence, especially against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, located in western Myanmar. In these cases, violence typically erupts after Buddhist monks preach hateful sermons against Muslims. An inciting incident usually involves a Buddhist being somehow wronged by a Muslim, which provides a pretext for large-scale retaliation against the Muslim community.

In mid-January, a police officer was allegedly killed in the village of Du Char Yar Tan in northern Rakhine State. According to a number of organisations — including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch — Buddhist citizens and police used this incident as an excuse to commit rapes and mass executions of Muslims, leaving more than 40 Rohingya dead. Soon after, PHR received reports that the local police around Maungdaw had issued a verbal order to arrest all Rohingya males over 10 years of age. The Myanmar government will not allow independent media or investigators into the area, making such reports difficult to confirm. But if true, the order underscores the longstanding organised persecution of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya have been called the most persecuted people in the world, as Myanmar's government’s refusal to recognise them as citizens has left them stateless. Since violence broke out in Rakhine last year, more than 275 Rohingya have perished and another 140,000 have been forced to flee their homes and villages. Tens of thousands are now living in squalid government camps, where they are denied access to food, medicine, education, jobs, and even the basic right to freedom of movement. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that it had treated 22 individuals who had been victims of the Du Char Yar Tan attack. In apparent retaliation for MSF having corroborated that the event took place, the government essentially ordered MSF, which has operated in Myanmar for almost 20 years, to cease its operation countrywide, leaving tens of thousands of Myanmar people without medical care. The government has since reconsidered and is allowing MSF to resume its life-saving work in all regions of Myanmar, except Rakhine state.

Even as state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya community escalates, the Myanmar authorities deny that any massacre occurred and defy all international calls for independent investigations. The Myanmar government has broadly failed to hold perpetrators accountable and refused to address the underlying systematic problems — including decades of discrimination, the proliferation of virulent hate speech, and the lack of functional legal institutions — that contribute to the ongoing attacks against Muslims and other minorities across the country.

The Southeast Asia-based human rights organisation Fortify Rights recently presented evidence on the Burmese government "that raises the abuses to the threshold of crimes against humanity." Discrimination against Rohingya was never a secret, but there is now direct evidence that such discrimination was government policy. The international community must take action in the face of the horrific human rights abuses being perpetrated against the Rohingya.

We must press for the launch of an independent investigation, urge the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar’s to continue documentation of human rights abuses, and insist that governments and international financiers restrict their investments and stop rewarding the Myanmar government until state officials take meaningful steps to address ongoing violence and discrimination against Rohingya and the Muslim community at large.

Regional leaders should press the Myanmar government to cooperate with such an international investigation and support the call for unfettered access of humanitarian aid workers to affected areas. To do any less makes a mockery of our commitment to human rights.

Dr Holly Atkinson is a volunteer medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights, and director of the Human Rights Programme, Arnhold Global Health Institute at Mount Sinai in New York City.

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