By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, was in Myanmar last week on a 10-day fact finding trip. It was his eighth official visit to the country that took him to Rakhine State, Chin State, Kachin State and Shan State, and Meikhtila in Mandalay Region.
Quintana’s visit to Burma got off to a bumpy start when he was greeted in Arakan State by nearly 90 Arakanese Buddhist Magh protesters, some of whom carried signs urging the “one-sided Bengali lobbyist” to “get out,” reflecting perceptions among some that the UN envoy is biased in favor of the state’s Rohingya Muslims. It is not unusual for a country that has come to symbolize the den of intolerance, racism and bigotry in our times. Many in Burma—including the government—refer to the Rohingya - who are indigenous to Arakan before Buddhist Maghs moved to the region – as Bengalis.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Quintana pushed back against accusations of bias, saying, “Let me reaffirm that I have a willingness to work for the human rights of all the people of Myanmar. … I am ready also to talk to those who disagree with my approach and with my opinions. I did it in Rakhine State, I stepped off my car and I talked to the protesters." “The condition is that it has to be a peaceful dialogue and that’s the challenge in Myanmar with respect to this issue.”
Quintana's ordeal recalled the difficulties previous U.N. envoys had in dealing with Myanmar before military rule ended in 2011, when they were often barred from meeting people, snubbed by officials and even denied entry to the country.
The human rights situation in Arakan State has drawn international attention and severe condemnation, with human rights groups and foreign leaders alike expressing serious concern over the humanitarian conditions of some 140,000 IDPs (internally displaced people) who live in 76 squalid camps that are located outside the state’s townships. The IDPs, most of whom are Rohingyas, were driven from their homes in two bouts of genocidal campaigns by the racist Buddhists last year. The Rohingyas have faced systemic discrimination for decades and are denied citizenship by the apartheid government, which contends that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Just days before Quintana’s arrival, police opened fire on crowds of Rohingya Muslims in IDP camps outside of Sittwe (Akyab), the state capital, in the latest instance of violence to hit the troubled region. At least one Rohingya was killed by police bullets and several others were wounded by the gunfire.
In Kachin State, Quintana met last week with government officials and representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), but was denied access to the KIO stronghold of Laiza on the Sino-Burmese border, with the government citing security concerns. “This pattern of denying access, not only to address humanitarian shortcomings but also serious human rights concerns, needs to change immediately,” Quintana said on Wednesday.
In Meikhtila, his planned visit to an IDP camp on August 19 had to be cancelled after a group of Buddhist protesters aggressively confronted him. He said: "My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors while shouting abuse."
In March, following weeks of incitement of religious hatred within the community, violence targeting the Muslim community erupted in Meikhtila, leaving over 10,000 Muslims displaced. The pogrom against Muslims there saw Buddhist mobs torch whole Muslim areas in violence that spread to other parts of the country. The victims included more than 20 students and teachers of a Muslim school on the outskirts of Meikhtila, who were set upon by armed men and beaten and burned to death, according to witnesses interviewed by AFP.
Graphic video footage given to AFP by activists shows an embankment next to the school turned into a killing field, watched over by uniformed police who did nothing to stop those horrendous crimes.
After the March violence, Quintana said the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggested a possible state link to the fighting. Commenting on the mob attack on his car this time, he said, "The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt during the violence last March, as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people."
In a statement released by the UN Information Center, Quintana highlighted the role of the state in preventing such incidents from spiraling out of control: "I must highlight the obligation of the police to act immediately to control violent mobs running riot in communities, and protect all people regardless of their religion or ethnicity; something it seems they have not done during the violence in Meiktila."
After meeting with residents who witnessed the scenes last March, he stressed, "The violence in Meiktila has highlighted to me the dangers of the spread of incitement of religious hatred in Myanmar, and the deadly environment that this can create. The central and state government has an obligation to address these worrying trends."
Quintana visited Lashio in Shan State where he met with township authorities and Muslim leaders. During the violence in late April, which affected the Muslim community in Lashio, in most cases the police stood by while the Buddhist mobs set fire to Muslim houses, shops, a mosque and a Muslim orphanage. A Muslim man was brutally beaten to death with sticks and stabbed, and his wife was severely injured. Thousands of Muslims remain internally displaced in the region.
Quintana also noted that the state and central government in Myanmar are working well with the international community to address urgent humanitarian needs of both Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim communities. "However," he said, "my overriding concern is that the separation and segregation of communities in Rakhine State is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult. This continues to have a particularly negative impact on the Muslim community. The severe restrictions on freedom of movement in Muslim IDP camps and villages remain in place. I visited Aung Mingalar, the only remaining Muslim ward in Sittwe, where a large number of people are living in a confined space, with the periphery marked out with barbed wire and guarded by armed police. This has serious consequences for fundamental human rights, including access to healthcare, education, as well as access to livelihoods. Furthermore, there continues to be cases of humanitarian workers facing intimidation by local groups when attempting to provide healthcare to the camps, which compounds the problem of access to healthcare."
He welcomed the disbandment of Nasaka, a border security force which has committed numerous human rights violations over the years. He said, "The police and army have now taken charge of security in Rakhine State. Although there are legitimate security concerns which the police and army are addressing, I have received many serious allegations of the disproportionate use of force in dealing with large crowds of Muslim protestors. The latest incident saw live ammunition used to disperse a crowd of Muslims in Sittwe, with two killed and several injured. Security forces need to stop the use of excessive force. Sittwe and in particular Buthidaung prison are filled with hundreds of Muslims men and women detained in connection with the violence of June and October 2012. Many of these have been arbitrarily detained and tried in flawed trials. I met the State Chief Justice and urged for the respect of due process of law. The use of torture and ill treatment, including some cases of death, during the first three months of the June outbreak, needs to be properly investigated and those responsible held to account."
He called on the Myanmar Government to fulfill its obligations in stemming the spread of incitement of religious hatred directed against minority communities, through strong public messaging, the establishment of the rule of law, and policing in line with international human rights standards. He said, "The starting point for the solution to the situation in Rakhine lies with the unavoidable role of the state in pursuing policies that benefit both communities and brings the restoration of the rule of law as a means to build bridges between them."
The U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights, in a report released Tuesday, blamed the government for failing "to protect vulnerable groups" and allowing "a culture of impunity for the violators," and called on the government to conduct thorough investigations and prosecute those responsible. It warned that Burma risked “catastrophic” levels of conflict, including “potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide,” if authorities failed to stem anti-Muslim hate speech and a culture of impunity around the clashes.
As I have noted in my earlier commentaries on Myanmar, the state remains a pariah state with its apartheid structure intact. The so-called reform activities of the government of Thein Sein have not put a dent in that massive structure. Unless, that structure is uprooted and its racist and bigot elements within the broader society tamed down Myanmar would continue to repeat her past crimes and her records of human rights abuses and tortures would remain a matter of grave concern to the civilized world. The UN and the international community, on their part, need to ensure that Myanmar's Thein Sein government is not prematurely rewarded for its half-hearted reform activities, which thus far, deplorably, have been hypocritical to the core to fool them. They ought to also make sure that the ideologues of Buddhist racism and bigotry against the Muslims and Christians are hunted down for their incitement of genocidal activities within Myanmar. Only by bringing such war criminals – the promoters of intolerance – to the book, can the government send the message to its racist and bigotry-ridden, fractured society that such evils will no longer be tolerated in new Myanmar.
Will the Buddhist leaders of Myanmar have the hindsight, courage and wisdom to do what is morally right towards bridge-building and finding a place in the civilized world? Or, is it a hopeless case with this Mogher Mulluk that will continue to snub voices of reason and wisdom, so well put by Tomas Quintana in his press release?