UN envoy slams Myanmar's anti-Muslim violence

UN human-rights envoy says violence feeds wider anti-Muslim narrative that threatens country's reform process

A Muslim Rohingya family sits outside their temporary relief camp in a school in Thetkaepyin village.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Violence against a Muslim minority in Myanmar is feeding a wider anti-Muslim feeling that poses a serious threat to the country's dramatic economic and political reforms as it emerges from half a century of military rule, according to a United Nations envoy.

"The situation in Rakhine state has fed a wider anti-Muslim narrative in Myanmar, which is posing one of the most serious threats to the reform process," Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said Thursday. "Rakhine state remains in a situation of profound crisis."

"The underlying issue of discrimination against Muslim and particularly Rohingya populations remains unaddressed," he told the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human-rights issues. "Allegations of gross violations since the violence erupted last June, including by state security personnel, remain unaddressed."

The government says at least 192 people were killed in June and October 2012 during clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, most of whom Myanmar deems illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite roots going back generations.

The clashes led to unrest elsewhere in the country, where other groups of Muslims have been targeted, including Kamans, who are of a different ethnicity from Rohingya Muslims.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the BBC Thursday that she blames the violence on a "climate of fear" that has exacerbated tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.

Often criticized for not defending Muslims since she was released from house arrest two years ago, she denied that Muslims had been subjected to ethnic cleansing.

She said that tensions were inflamed by a worldwide perception that global Muslim power was "very great" and that it was up to the government to bring an end to the violence.

"This is the result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime. I think that if you live under a dictatorship for many years, people do not like to trust one another. A dictatorship generates a climate of mistrust," she said.

She added that the effective implementation of the rule of law was essential. "Before people can sit down and sort out their differences, they have to feel safe," she said. "If they feel that they are going to be killed in their beds, they are not going to talk about harmony or learn to understand one another."

A representative of Myanmar's mission to the U.N. told the Third Committee that the "recent dramatic democratic changes in Myanmar were a clear demonstration of the changes of mindset in the government." 

"At the critical time of democratic transition, no country is immune from challenges. Myanmar went through unfortunate communal violence in Rakhine state sparked by a brutal crime. We very much regret loss of life and property caused to both communities," he said.

The violence in northern Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest regions and home to 1 million mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, has continued this year, with dozens killed and 140,000 left homeless.

"The president (Thein Sein) has made some commendable public speeches in which he has emphasized the need for trust, respect and compassion between people of different faiths and ethnic groups in Myanmar," Quintana said.

"However, more needs to be done by the government to tackle the spread of discriminatory views and to protect vulnerable minority communities," he added.

An estimated 5 percent of Myanmar's 60 million people are Muslim.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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