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The Burmese government is responsible for fuelling a “profound crisis” in Arakan state, where several bouts of Muslim-Buddhist clashes have claimed hundreds of lives since last year, according to a damning UN report released on Wednesday.
The 23-page document, drafted by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, accuses the government of failing to address local grievances behind the violence, while encouraging a culture of impunity among Buddhist perpetrators.
“There is little evidence that the government has taken steps to tackle the underlying causes of the communal violence or has put in place the policies that are necessary to forge a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous future for the state,” warned the report.
Quintana expressed concern that no public officials have been questioned or arrested, despite “consistent and credible” reports of state complicity in human rights abuses against Muslims. He described the ongoing impunity as “particularly troubling” in light of the social marginalisation of Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship and heavily persecuted in Burma.
The report further backs claims that the government has unfairly targeted Muslim suspects with punitive or criminal sanctions, including the use of torture in Buthidaung prison near the Bangladeshi border.
“[Rohingya inmates] were subjected to three months of systematic torture and ill-treatment by prison guards and up to 20 prison inmates, who appear to have been brought into the prison for the specific purpose of administering beatings to Muslim prisoners,” said the report.
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 many Muslims have been arrested as part of village “sweeps” and subsequently denied access to legal representation or fair trials.
Quintana insisted that the regime, led by President Thein Sein, has flouted its obligations to fully investigate all claims of extrajudicial killings, rapes and arbitrary detentions. He called on the international community to “consider further steps” until Burma meets its human rights obligations.
The rapporteur also highlighted the plight of several detained Rohingyas he considered political prisoners, including community leaders Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung, who have both been arbitrarily detained for several months. He described the cases as a “serious blot on country’s record of reform” and urged Thein Sein to ensure their swift release.
He recommended that the mandate of the state-backed committee established to identify and release all remaining political prisoners in Burma be expanded to include suggestions to prevent future arrests.
Religious violence first gripped Burma in June last year, when Buddhist Arakanese clashed with Muslim Rohingyas, who are considered illegal Bengali immigrants by the government. Nearly 140,000 Rohingyas have since been confined to squalid camps without adequate food, sanitation, healthcare or education.
Although Quintana welcomed some recommendations made by the state-backed Arakan investigation commission, which published a report into the violence in April, he criticised its failure to address the issue of impunity and systematic abuses against the Rohingya minority.
Quintana also condemned the rise of the so-called “969” movement, an extremist religious group which calls on Buddhists to shun Muslims and has been blamed for the spread of religious violence across the county. The latest riots, which rocked the Arakan town Sandoway [Thandwe] in early October, have been connected to a nationalist organisation with direct links to the movement’s spiritual leader and prominent monk Wirathu.
He urged the government to send a “strong, consistent and unambiguous” message through the media to counter any discriminatory propaganda vilifying Muslims and the Rohingya community, which is deeply unpopular in Burma. The rapporteur also reiterated a call for the government to revise the 1982 citizenship law, which strips the Rohingya of their legal status.
The report was compiled on the basis of a 10-day visit to the Southeast Asian country in August and will be presented to the UN General Assembly in New York on Thursday. The UN is expected to pass another resolution on Burma in November, after pressure from the US government and human rights groups who want it to include strict benchmarks for measurable improvement.