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Myanmar failing to stop spread of religious violence, UN envoy says

Armed police in the Mingalar Taung Nyunt Muslim neighbourhood in Yangon after clashes between Muslim residents and nationalists. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

By Poppy McPherson
May 19, 2017

Myanmar must do more to prevent the drastic escalation of religious intolerance and violence following clashes between ultranationalist Buddhists and minority Muslims in Yangon, a senior United Nations envoy has said. 

Speaking to the Guardian, Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, called on the year-old National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to strengthen its efforts to curb hate speech and violence drummed up by nationalist groups.

“I have, in the past, raised concerns regarding incidents of hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence, and of religious intolerance, and these appear to be drastically escalating,” she said.

“I believe that the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric is not receiving the serious attention that it requires, and is too often left unchecked by the authorities. This cannot be tolerated any longer. The government must step up to take more concerted efforts to tackle and address such incidents.”

Last week, a fight broke out in a Muslim neighbourhood of Yangon after dozens of nationalists raided the home of a family they believed was hiding Rohingya Muslims, members of a persecuted minority deemed by many to be illegal immigrants.

The violence, which left several injured, came two weeks after another radical group, involving some of the same people, forced the closure of two Islamic schools.

While the Myanmar authorities have arrested several Buddhists in connection with the recent violence, they bowed to nationalist pressure to shutter the Islamic schools.

Zaw Htay, a spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi, declined to take questions, saying he was in a meeting that would last all day.

In Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, the majority Muslim neighbourhood where last week’s violence took place, many residents are too frightened to talk. But inside her flat, 47-year-old Ma Win recalled how nationalists, accompanied by police, stormed in shortly before midnight last Tuesday and demanded to see identity documents proving the family was not Rohingya. They broke off the door handles.

Ma Win, who claims her Yangon home was raided by nationalists looking for Rohingya people. Photograph: Aung Naing Soe for the Guardian

“I have borne five children in Yangon,” said Ma Win, adding that she has lived in the city since she was a child. “So how dare they say that I am an illegal immigrant?”

She said the raid had followed a financial dispute with a member of a nationalist group. “We feel we are insecure here,” Ma Win said. “I do not dare go out alone now.”

Yangon, the former capital and current commercial capital, has been spared the worst of inter-religious clashes that have plagued Myanmar in recent years. Violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims engulfed Rakhine state in 2012, leaving hundreds dead and thousands more displaced, and it has spread to other cities, including Meiktila in 2013. Several died in anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay a year later.

But until now Yangon, a city of more than 7 million people and home to a sizeable Muslim population, as well as Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and a small Jewish community, has remained unscathed.

“This area belongs to members of every religion – Hindus and Buddhists … we are brothers and sisters living here,” said Soe Win, a Muslim community leader in Mingalar Taung Nyunt.

Melissa Crouch, an expert on Islam in Myanmar at the University of New South Wales, said an “intimidation campaign” was under way in Yangon. Nationalist protests have previously shut down religious events including birthday celebrations for the prophet Muhammad.

“To question the validity of a religious building’s permit, or to make accusations about hiding illegal immigrants is just another way to unsettle and disrupt the Muslim community in Yangon,” she said. “To challenge any sense of belonging they still have, [and] to threaten them with the brand of ‘outsiders’.”

Human rights groups suggest the deepening Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state is worsening attitudes towards the country’s broader Muslim community. 

Kyaw Win, the executive director of Burma Human Rights Network, said: “Because the narrative [about the Rohingya] includes so many harmful stereotypes about Muslims it affects the perception of Muslims as a whole.”

While Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have been widely criticised for failing to speak out on behalf of persecuted religious minorities, authorities this week arrested four people in connection with the violence and are searching for three others, including two monks.

“But the fact remains that the authorities are still capitulating to the demands of the ultranationalists,” said Richard Weir, Asia research fellow at Human Rights Watch.

Additional reporting by Aung Naing Soe

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