November 1, 2013

Holly Atkinson is director of the Human Rights Program at Mount Sinai Global Health and past president of Physicians for Human Rights. Michael Abramowitz, a former Post reporter, directs the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Rakhine state, on the western coast of Burma, is among the most dangerous places in the world to be a Muslim.

Just over a year ago, simmering tensions and small-scale clashes erupted into mass violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya, a minority of about 800,000 whose roots in Burma are several centuries old. During these rampages, Buddhist mobs stormed Muslim enclaves, setting fire to villages, destroying schools and mosques and leaving scores of Rohingya dead.

One victim of the violence was Ayessa, a 55-year-old woman who lived in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Her husband and brother were killed, and she was forced to flee her home for a displaced persons’ camp. She sought to leave Burma on a boat with her two young granddaughters and other relatives but was turned back by Burmese authorities. She was returned to one of the camps, where displaced Rohingya continue to be confined a year after the violence, cut off from nearly all goods and services. The September United Nations humanitarian bulletin reports that 180,000 people in camps and segregated communities in Rakhine state need life-saving assistance — nearly all are Muslim, and a majority, about 103,000, are children. Yet humanitarian agencies increasingly are obstructed from reaching those in need.

The anti-Rohingya violence has since affected other Muslims in Burma. In September, a Buddhist mob rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood of Kamein ethnicity in Thandwe, a town in Rakhine state. Among those killed was a 94-year-old grandmother. Attacks have been reported in dozens of locations across Burma. In the central town of Meiktila, for example, a mob massacred middle-school students and their teachers, among others. Survivors told investigators from Physicians for Human Rights grisly details of beatings, stabbings, decapitations and immolations while scores of police officers watched and hundreds of bystanders cheered and shouted such things as, “Kill them!” A key catalyst for the violence is the rising influence of the 969 movement, a campaign led by Buddhist monks that preaches religious purity and urges boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses.

The threat of future violence is acute against all Muslims in Burma but particularly the Rohingya. Burma’s 1982 citizenship law does not include the Rohingya among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, so they are essentially stateless. They are widely reviled throughout Burma as illegal immigrants. They must obtain official approval to marry and to travel, even to neighboring villages; in some areas, they are prohibited from having more than two children. Many Rohingya, including children, have been forced to work without pay for government and military authorities. Rohingya routinely face arbitrary arrest and detention, confiscation of property, and physical and sexual violence.

Perhaps most outrageous amid this violence against Rohingya and other Muslims has been the tacit support of Burmese authorities. Investigations by Physicians for Human Rights and others have found that Buddhist monks and local politicians incited and led many of the attacks. State security forces have failed or refused to stop incidents of violence and sometimes participated in it. While hundreds of Muslims have been jailed for supposedly instigating the violence, few perpetrators have been arrested. It has become evident that there is little risk in Burma to those who attack Muslims.

In the past few years, Burma has made remarkable progress on political reform. But in his final report last month as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana called attention to the “profound crisis” in Rakhine state and expressed concern that the de facto segregation of Burma’s Muslim communities would become permanent.

The Burmese government’s eagerness to attract foreign investment and aid provides opportunities for the international community to encourage and assist in protecting all of Burma’s peoples from crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Indeed, largely in response to outside pressure, members of Burma’s government have signaled their intention to address the plight of the Rohingya; Burmese President Thein Sein visited Rakhine state last month for the first time since the violence started in 2012 and offered soothing words.

But there has been little progress toward easing the suffering of the Rohingya or protecting Muslims from further discrimination and violence. Pro-democracy leaders have been passive in the face of the anti-Muslim violence. Without greater initiative from Burma’s leaders and vigilance from its friends abroad, the mix of religious nationalism, ethnic violence and state complicity could yet reap catastrophic violence, which would be disastrous for the entire nation.