Anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar is threatening to derail the significant progress the country has made toward democracy since the military junta formally stepped down in 2011. In June and in October 2012, rampages in Rakhine State against Rohingyas, a minority Muslim group, left scores dead. Tens of thousands fled their homes. In October this year, mobs attacked Muslims in a rampage that killed a 94-year-old grandmother, among other victims. A far smaller number of Buddhists have also been victims of lethal violence. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have fled Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation. Most sought asylum in Bangladesh and Malaysia. Recently, thousands have taken refuge in or been forcibly displaced to camps within Myanmar where they are virtual prisoners. Humanitarian aid groups have been denied access to these camps.
A group of radical Buddhist monks known as 969 and their de facto leader Ashin Wirathu are to blame for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim hysteria. But the government of Myanmar is also culpable: Despite a stated commitment to safeguarding human rights and promoting democracy and the rule of law, the government has taken no real action to address the violence or stem hate speech. In May, a law was revived limiting Rohingyas to two children, a direct violation of their basic human rights.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is expected to run for election in Myanmar’s 2015 presidential elections, has been tragically silent. She rejects Human Rights Watch’s charge, based on a detailed report published in April, that the plight of the Rohingyas amounts to ethnic cleansing.
The United Nations passed a resolution on Nov. 21 calling on Myanmar to grant Rohingyas citizenship — denied them under a 1982 law. The government of Myanmar has rejected the resolution.
President Thein Sein needs to act urgently to investigate human rights abuses against Rohingyas, hold perpetrators to account, allow humanitarian groups access to camps and protect basic human rights, including the right to citizenship for people who have called Myanmar home for generations.