08/22/2013 07:17 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Lack of Effective Government Response to Anti-Muslim Violence Threatens Reforms in Burma

As tourists and businesses continue to flow into Burma, a country long isolated by its former military regime, narratives of beautiful landscapes and untapped "investment potential" are replacing stories about rampant forced labor, child soldiers, and militarized attacks against civilians. Burma is looking to gain legitimacy on the international stage by making some sorely needed political reforms, but the country's minority groups do not yet stand to gain from these advances.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) just released a report that documents disturbing patterns of anti-Muslim violence in the country, including brutal attacks against members of the Rohingya community. Often called the most persecuted minority in the world, the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim group, are denied citizenship and access to health care, education, and other essential services. Attacks against the Rohingya have continued largely unimpeded, as civilians engage in violence with assistance or acceptance from law enforcement. Hate speech and attacks against the Rohingya--largely driven by Buddhist civilians--have now spread to other Muslim communities across the country.

In Meiktila, a town in central Burma, students, teachers and other members of the Muslim community were brutally attacked in March 2013. The violence followed a theme reflected across the country, whether it is in Sittwe, Lashio, or Oakkan. An "inciting incident" devolves into reprisal attacks against a Muslim community, where acts of violence against Muslim individuals, homes, and places of worship are conducted with surgical accuracy.

In contrast to attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma in the past, where the military was perpetrating the crimes, recent anti-Muslim violence is largely conducted by civilians. In Rakhine State, for example, Rakhine Buddhists who have faced discrimination at the hands of the central government have turned on Rohingya Muslims. Members of the majority Buddhist community participated in violent attacks as well as hateful campaigns to displace the Rohingya and solidify segregation between the two groups.

The story of violence and persecution in Rakhine State shows that ordinary people are capable of extreme violence and that the military is not the only group in Burma capable of brutal campaigns against entire communities. But this does not release state actors from their responsibilities. When police demonstrate a disregard for protecting public safety and the state fails to pursue justice for those who have been harmed, the government is complicit in the crime.

Witnesses described how police officers were present at these scenes of targeted violence, but allowed the attacks to continue. At times, police officers actively attacked civilians, sometimes with gunfire, instead of stepping in to stop the violence. Burma's police and other security forces are infamous for their crackdowns on pro-democracy marches, labor rights protests, and other gatherings that they deem "dangerous" to the state. Their acceptance of violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims is an unforgivable dereliction of their duty to protect the vulnerable. Tolerance for such attacks is a worrisome sign; continued inaction on the part of local or central government actors has the potential to prolong the violence and lead to increased attacks.

The lack of response from the country's democracy leaders is just as disturbing. Human rights defenders who have long championed basic freedoms and who have endured great personal sacrifices to further their ideals have been oddly quiet about the recent waves of anti-Muslim attacks.

The likelihood of continued violence depends on the response from leaders in Burma as well as the international community. To policymakers in the United States and Europe, anti-Muslim attacks seem to be an inconvenience--something that creates difficult talking points for nations otherwise eager to normalize relations with Burma and ramp up business and military ties. The U.S. response thus far has included public statements about the need for religious tolerance, but the U.S. government has not taken the principled step of conditioning any further business or military rewards to improvements on the part of the government of Burma. The United States should use its leverage and renewed relationship with Burmese leaders not only to plow forward on investment opportunities, but to pressure Burma to conduct thorough investigations of human rights violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and reform discriminatory laws that impact minority groups.

Allowing massacres to go relatively unnoticed is inconsistent with developing a strong and peaceful democracy. The story of reform in Burma will depend on whether violence against minorities is appropriately addressed or whether it becomes a permanent feature of the national landscape.