The continuing violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the blocking of aid for them by Buddhists in Myanmar could be seen as an attempt at ethnic cleansing, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a nongovernmental group that advocates for the Rohingya, adding that the international community should put pressure on the government to immediately control the situation.
The first glimmer of violence in Myanmar occurred in June after claims that three Rohingya Muslims raped a Buddhist woman. Following the allegations, extremist Buddhists began to kill Muslims living in Arakan province, the location of the recently escalating violence in the country, near Bangladesh.“The alleged perpetrators were indeed three Muslims although the exact circumstances of the rape are unclear. The three were immediately arrested and sentenced to death. The sentence was handed down so quickly that I doubt any proper judicial procedure has been followed,” said Lewa, adding that the death penalty was usually not carried out in Myanmar.
In an interview with Today's Zaman, Lewa described the violence in Myanmar as an ethno-religious conflict, primarily based on race, but in which religious sentiments play a significant role. “Rohingya Muslims do not have any friends in Myanmar,” said Lewa, adding that communal clashes between Buddhists and Rohingyans have turned into state-sponsored violence specifically targeting the Rohingyans.
Reproaching the stance of the international community, Lewa stated that most countries are keen to invest in Myanmar but do not care about the human rights of Rohingyans. “What I find regrettable is that the suspension of sanctions and support for a reform process in Myanmar, which so far is not much more than cosmetic, have reduced these countries to silence on gross human rights issues including the treatment of Rohingyans,” said Lewa.
The Rohingyan Muslims are not seen as citizens of Myanmar by nationalist Myanmar leaders, officials and fanatical Buddhists, and in turn are exposed to discrimination. “Hostility toward the Rohingyans has been long-standing, fuelled by competing notions of the role of race and religion in Myanmar's national identity,” said Lewa.
Myanmar President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Arakan province following clashes between Buddhists and Muslims and deployed army troops to restore stability. “Border security forces as well as riot police have been involved in burning houses, looting, and killings before and after the state of emergency was imposed. The army has mostly been involved in mass arrests, killings and rape but not in burning houses and looting,” said Lewa, adding the government has declared a state of emergency in six townships in Arakan province, which is still in force.
“Hundreds of Rohingyans were arrested and taken away to unknown destinations, as their families did not hear from them,” said Lewa.
Myanmar's government is currently not allowing any media organizations to enter the country. An aid team from the United Nations, which is the only foreign team that was allowed to enter the region, has said death toll numbers are contradictory.
“Threats against the UN and international NGOs are being circulated in attempts to block assistance to the Rohingyans,” said Lewa.