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Violence against the Rohingya minority in Arakan state has fuelled a wider campaign of anti-Muslim hostility in Burma which threatens to derail the country’s fragile democratic reform process, a UN envoy warned on Thursday.
Presenting his final report to the UN General Assembly, Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, urged the government to do more to stem the tide of violence, which has claimed almost 250 lives since last year.
Violence first erupted in northern Arakan state in June 2012, when Rohingya Muslims, who are considered illegal Bengali immigrants and denied citizenship in Burma, clashed with local Buddhists. The unrest has since rippled through other parts of the country, targeting various Muslim communities, including the Arakan-based Kaman who unlike the Rohingya is a recognised Burmese ethnic group.
“The president [Thein Sein] has made some commendable public speeches in which he has emphasised the need for trust, respect and compassion between people of different faiths and ethnic groups in Myanmar [Burma],” Quintana told the General Assembly’s third committee, which deals with human rights.
“However, more needs to be done by the government to tackle the spread of discriminatory views and to protect vulnerable minority communities.”
The unrest has been linked to the rise of an extremist Buddhist movement, called 969, whose lead proponent, monk Wirathu, has likened Muslims to “mad dogs” and often been described as a hate preacher. But Thein Sein has publicly defended Wirathu as a “son of Buddha” and banned an edition of TIME Magazine that labelled him “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
Quintana’s 23-page report, which was made public on Wednesday, described the situation in Arakan state as a “profound crisis”, and highlighted “credible” allegations of state-complicity in serious human rights abuses, including torture and arbitrary detentions of Rohingya Muslims, which the government has failed to investigate.
“The underlying issue of discrimination against Muslim and particularly Rohingya populations remains unaddressed,” he told the UN. “Allegations of gross violations since the violence erupted last June, including by state security personnel, remain unaddressed.”
Some 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in northwestern Burma, where they are denied access to basic rights and need permits to travel or marry. Nearly 140,000 Rohingya have been confined to squalid displacement camps with limited access to food, sanitation and healthcare.
Chris Lewa from the advocacy group, The Arakan Project, praised Quintana’s report as “very comprehensive” and urged the international community to treat it as a “renewed alert” over the predicament of the Rohingya.
“I would qualify the situation in Arakan absolutely critical,” she said on Thursday. “The government does not appear to take any initiatives to address not just the root causes of the violence but also its consequences. Encampment and segregation of 140,000 Rohingya and Kaman are becoming permanent as time goes by.”
According to government data, 1,189 people including 260 Buddhists and 882 Rohingya Muslims have been detained for their role in the unrest. The rapporteur expressed concerns that Muslims have been unfairly targeted, with many arrested as part of village “sweeps” and subsequently denied access to legal representation or fair trials.
Lewa warned that the situation has not improved since Quintana’s visit to Arakan state in August, explaining that another 200 Rohingyas have been sentenced to jail terms ranging from 5 to 40 years.
“It is not surprising that, according to The Arakan Project’s estimate, more than 10,000 already fled by boat just over the last two months and from North Arakan alone,” she said.
Quintana’s report concludes his 6-year mandate as Special Rapporteur for Burma, and will be used to inform a new UN resolution on the former military dictatorship. The UN’s Human Rights Council will subsequently decide if a new rapporteur should be appointed next year.
His warnings come on the same day that opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, denied allegations that ethnic cleansing of Muslims is taking place in Burma.
“It’s not ethnic cleansing,” she told the BBC in an interview. “What the world needs to understand [is] that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.
Muslims make up some 5 percent of a population of 60 million in the Buddhist-majority country.