PHNOM PENH: Myanmar is under immense pressure to stop unabated violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims, which is allegedly being orchestrated by security forces in tandem with a political party supporting the radical nationalists.
Taking the issue under consideration, Southeast Asian leaders attending the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has decided to put pressure on Myanmar to resolve violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims, a senior regional official said yesterday. The unrest has left scores dead and as many as 100,000 people displaced since June.
Myanmar President Thein Sein has blamed nationalist and religious extremists for unrest in June and October that killed at least 167 people, but has faced criticism for failing to address underlying tensions in Rakhine State, where an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims are not recognized as citizens.
At least “800,000 people are now under tremendous pressure,” the AEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters on the sidelines of the summit in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
“If that issue is not handled well and effectively, there is a risk of extremism,” he said.
Surin said he expected ASEAN leaders to raise the issue with Myanmar, which is a member of the bloc, during bilateral talks.
The ASEAN chief admitted the Rohingya Muslims were the victims of “disturbing” ethnic violence, but stopped short of calling the bloodshed genocide. He did not agree with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which on Saturday had called the Rohingya victims of “genocide”.
A Reuters investigation painted a troubling picture of organized attacks led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks and, some witnesses said, abetted by local security forces.
US President Barack Obama is expected to raise the issue of ethnic tensions today, when he travels to Myanmar and meets Thein Sein. Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“In addition to the democratic reforms, we’ve been concerned about the continued ethnic conflicts in Burma,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters accompanying Obama aboard Air Force One.
“I think the president will be underscoring that national reconciliation is also going to be a part of Burma’s democratic transition,” he said.
The United Nations said yesterday Thein Sein had sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promising action to tackle the problems.
In a statement, Ban’s office said Thein Sein had promised that “once emotions subside on all sides”, his government was prepared to “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship”.
Many Rohingyas are subject to travel and work restrictions.
Rohingyas have lived for generations in Rakhine State, but Rakhines and other Burmese view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy.
A leading international rights group yesterday accused Myanmar security forces of supporting some of the brutal anti-Muslim violence last month that forced 35,000 people from torched homes. The government rejected the allegations, which came one day before President Barack Obama’s visit to the Southeast Asian nation after a year and a half of unprecedented democratic reforms there.
Human Rights Watch said soldiers in some parts of western Rakhine state also tried to stop Buddhist attacks and protect Muslim civilians, known as Rohingya. But the group said the government needs to do much more to protect the stateless minority, who are denied
citizenship because they are considered foreigners from Bangladesh.
The New York-based rights group also released new satellite imagery detailing the extensive destruction of several Muslim areas, including a village attacked by Buddhist mobs armed with spears and bows and arrows where adults were beheaded and women and children killed.
“The satellite images and eyewitness accounts reveal that local mobs, at times with official support, sought to finish the job of removing Rohingya from these areas,” said Brad Adams, the watchdog’s Asia director.
He urged US President Barack Obama to press Myanmar’s reformist leader Thein Sein on the issue when he makes a historic visit to Yangon on Monday following sweeping political changes in the former pariah state.