In Myanmar, government forces stood by while Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were slain in devastating rounds of violence and retribution, then joined in by killing, raping and rounding up the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on the devastating sectarian attacks.
As the long-isolated country takes steps toward reform and gains increasing acceptance abroad, human rights activists and analysts have warned that ethnic tensions are one of its most stubborn problems and must be addressed before the country can forge a sustainable peace.
Violence exploded in June after a Buddhist woman was reportedly raped by Muslim men, sparking a deadly cycle of attacks and reprisals as mobs from both Rakhine and Rohingya communities ransacked villages and killed their people. Witnesses on both sides told the group that security forces had failed to protect them in the early days of the attacks.
“The government could have stopped this,” two men -- – one Rakhine, the other Rohingya -- told Human Rights Watch.
The attacks killed 78 people, according to Myanmar officials, but human rights groups believe the death toll was much higher. As the carnage and chaos wore on, security forces joined in against the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch found.
While Rakhine mobs burned thousands of homes in the city of Sittwe, police and paramilitary forces opened fire on Rohingya, the report found. In another area, border guards and soldiers shot at Rohingya villagers as they tried to flee and looted food and valuables from their emptied homes.
Meanwhile, the world has been cheering reform in Myanmar, which has led to the lifting of sanctions and opening up of investment, the human rights group lamented. Just after the report was released, the World Bank announced it would resume assistance to the country, ushering in up to $85 million in grants. The United States began allowing new investments in Myanmar last month.
“The international community appears to be blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change in Burma, signing new trade deals and lifting sanctions even while the abuses continue,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
In the aftermath of the attacks, President Thein Sein reportedly said the only solution to the strife was to expel the Rohingya or send them to refugee camps. The government has clamped down on access to the conflict zones, especially Rohingya areas, hindering humanitarian aid, and hundreds of Rohingya men and boys have been detained, the report said.
Myanmar has rejected accusations that its forces carried out abuses and said the violence was not linked to religious or ethnic persecution, “as the victims of violence are both from Buddhist and Muslim communities.”
“The government has exercised maximum restraint in order to restore law and order in those particular places” affected by violence, the Foreign Affairs ministry said in a statement Monday.
The country also argued against "attempts by some quarters to politicize and internationalize this situation as a religious issue," an apparent reference to outrage in many Muslim countries over the assaults on Rohingya.
The damning report comes as United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana is visiting western Myanmar to investigate the violence. More than 800 people are reportedly still in detention over the unrest, including several U.N. and other international workers accused of taking part in the clashes.
As it edges toward reform, Myanmar has halted hostilities with some ethnic rebels, but the Rohingya are in effect excluded from citizenship and remain victims of systemic discrimination. The United Nations estimates that 80,000 people are still displaced around the towns of Sittwe and Maungdaw. Some Muslims have told the U.N. refugee agency they fear to go home.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Policemen walk toward burning buildings in Sittwe in western Myanmar in June. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press