(Bangkok) – Burmese security forces committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect both them and Arakan Buddhists during deadly sectarian violence in western Burma in June 2012. Government restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingya community have left many of the over 100,000 people displaced and in dire need of food, shelter, and medical care.
The 56-page report, “‘The Government Could Have Stopped This’: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,” describes how the Burmese authorities failed to take adequate measures to stem rising tensions and the outbreak of sectarian violence in Arakan State. Though the army eventually contained the mob violence in the state capital, Sittwe, both Arakan and Rohingya witnesses told Human Rights Watch that government forces stood by while members from each community attacked the other, razing villages and committing an unknown number of killings.
“Burmese security forces failed to protect the Arakan and Rohingya from each other and then unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in Arakan State demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist.”
The Burmese government should take urgent measures to end abuses by their forces, ensure humanitarian access, and permit independent international monitors to visit affected areas and investigate abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The “Government Could Have Stopped This,” is based on 57 interviews conducted in June and July with affected Arakan, Rohingya, and others in Burma and in Bangladesh, where Rohingya have sought refuge from the violence and abuses.
The violence erupted in early June after reports circulated that on May 28 an Arakan Buddhist woman was raped and killed in the town of Ramri by three Muslim men. Details of the crime were circulated locally in an incendiary pamphlet, and on June 3 a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop stopped a bus and brutally killed 10 Muslims on board. Human Rights Watch confirmed that nearby local police and army stood by and watched but did not intervene. In retaliation, on June 8 thousands of Rohingya rioted in Maungdaw town after Friday prayers, killed an unknown number of Arakan, and destroyed considerable Arakan property. Violence between Rohingya and Arakan then swept through Sittwe and surrounding areas.
Marauding mobs from both Arakan and Rohingya communities stormed unsuspecting villages and neighborhoods, brutally killed residents, and destroyed and burned homes, shops, and houses of worship. With little to no government security present to stop the violence, people armed themselves with swords, spears, sticks, iron rods, knives, and other basic weaponry. Inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda fanned the violence. Numerous Arakan and Rohingya who spoke to Human Rights Watch reached the conclusion that the authorities could have prevented the violence and the ensuing abuses could have been avoided.
A 29-year-old Arakan man and an older Rohingya man each told Human Rights Watch, separately but in the same words, “The government could have stopped this.”
The Burmese army’s presence in Sittwe eventually stemmed the violence. However, on June 12, Arakan mobs burned down the homes of up to 10,000 Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims in the city’s largest Muslim neighborhood while the police and paramilitary Lon Thein forces opened fire on Rohingya with live ammunition.
A Rohingya man in Sittwe, 36, told Human Rights Watch that an Arakan mob “started torching the houses. When the people tried to put out the fires, the paramilitary shot at us. And the group beat people with big sticks.” Another Rohingya man from the same neighborhood said, “I was just a few feet away. I was on the road. I saw them shoot at least six people – one woman, two children, and three men. The police took their bodies away.”
In Sittwe, where the population was about half Arakan and half Muslim, most Muslims have fled the city or were forcibly relocated, raising questions about whether the government will respect their right to return home. Human Rights Watch found the center of the once diverse capital now largely segregated and devoid of Muslims.
In northern Arakan State, the army, police, Nasaka border guard forces, and Lon Thein paramilitaries have committed killings, mass arrests, and other abuses against Rohingya. They have operated in concert with local Arakan residents to loot food stocks and valuables from Rohingya homes. Nasaka and soldiers have fired upon crowds of Rohingya villagers as they attempted to escape the violence, leaving many dead and wounded.
“If the atrocities in Arakan had happened before the government’s reform process started, the international reaction would have been swift and strong,” said Adams. “But 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.”
Since June, the government has detained hundreds of Rohingya men and boys, who remain incommunicado. The authorities in northern Arakan State have a long history of torture and mistreatment of Rohingya detainees, Human Rights Watch said. In the southern coastal town of Moulmein, 82 fleeing Rohingya were reportedly arrested in late June and sentenced to one year in prison for violating immigration laws.
“The Burmese authorities should immediately release details of detained Rohingya, allow access to family members and humanitarian agencies, and release anyone not charged with a crime recognized under international law in which there is credible evidence,” Adams said. “This is a test case of the government’s stated commitment to reform and protecting basic rights.”
Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denies Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya population, estimated at 800,000 to 1 million people. On July 12, Burmese President Thein Sein said the “only solution” to the sectarian strife was to expel the Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen by the United Nations refugee agency.
“We will send them away if any third country would accept them,” he said.
Burmese law and policy discriminate against Rohingya, infringing on their rights to freedom of movement, education, and employment. Burmese government officials typically refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” “so-called Rohingya,” or the pejorative “Kalar,” and Rohingya face considerable prejudice from Burmese society generally, including from longtime democracy advocates and ethnic minorities who themselves have long faced oppression from the Burmese state.
Burma’s new human rights commission – led by chairman Win Mra, an ethnic Arakan – has not played an effective role in monitoring abuses in Arakan State, Human Rights Watch said. In a July 11 assessment of the sectarian violence, the commission reported on no government abuses, claimed all humanitarian needs were being met, and failed to address Rohingya citizenship and persecution.
“The Burmese government needs to urgently amend its citizenship law to end official discrimination against the Rohingya,” Adams said. “President Thein Sein cannot credibly claim to be promoting human rights while calling for the expulsion of people because of their ethnicity and religion.”
The sectarian violence has created urgent humanitarian needs for both Arakan and Rohingya communities, Human Rights Watch said. Local Arakan organizations, largely supported by domestic contributions, have provided food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to displaced Arakan. By contrast, the Rohingya population’s access to markets, food, and work remains dangerous or blocked, and many have been in hiding for weeks.
The government has restricted access to affected areas, particularly Rohingya areas, crippling the humanitarian response. United Nations and humanitarian aid workers have faced arrest as well as threats and intimidation from the local Arakan population, which perceives the aid agencies as biased toward the Rohingya. Government restrictions have made some areas, such as villages south of Maungdaw, inaccessible to humanitarian agencies.
“The authorities should immediately grant unfettered humanitarian access to all affected populations and begin work to prevent future violence between the communities,” Adams said. “The government should assist both communities with property restitution and ensure all of the displaced can return home and live in safety.”
Since the June violence, thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they have faced pushbacks from the Bangladeshi government in violation of international law. Human Rights Watch witnessed Rohingya men, women, and children who arrived onshore and pleaded for mercy from Bangladesh authorities, only to be pushed back to sea in barely seaworthy wooden boats during rough monsoon rains, putting them at grave risk of drowning or starvation at sea or persecution in Burma. It is unknown how many died in these pushbacks. Those who were able to make it into Bangladesh live in hiding, with no access to food, shelter, or protection.
Bangladesh is obligated to open its borders and provide the Rohingya at least temporary refuge until it is safe for them to return, in accordance with international human rights norms. Human Rights Watch called on concerned governments to assist Bangladesh in doing so and press both Burma and Bangladesh to end abuses and ensure the safety of Rohingyas.
“Bangladesh is violating its international legal obligations by callously pushing asylum seekers in rickety boats back into the open sea,” Adams said.