BURMA: Critical questions about communal violence
The Asian Human Rights Commission shares the worldwide concern about the communal violence in Arakan (Rakhine) State in Burma over the last fortnight, which has received widespread reportage in the international media, and joins in calls for its earliest cessation, and for the provision of relief to persons affected by the events that have unfolded there. It has today issued an open letter to the governments of Burma and Bangladesh, asking that they cooperate to enable the movement of persons to places of safety, rather than the closing of the two countries' shared border, and for full, protected access of international agencies to assess the situation and provide assistance (AHRC-OLT-013-2012).
These steps are obviously necessary to deal with conditions in the short term. In the longer term, deeper understanding of what has provoked the violence, and what can be done to prevent repeat occurrences, is equally necessary. Unfortunately, to date, limited evidence exists of willingness on the part of many important domestic and international actors to reflect critically on the events and ask questions openly about what has happened and why. The seeming reluctance on the part not only of people in official positions but also in political parties, international agencies and the media to ask questions about the causes of the violence and the reasons for its continuance is accompanied by a lack of reflection on events of the recent past, some of which may help to inform us of what is going on in the present.
The most obvious yet largely unasked question is to what extent has violence been enabled, if not encouraged, by people in positions of authority? In much of the reporting and analysis about events in the region to date, the question has been submerged by commentary about the efforts of officials to bring matters under their control, and the limitations of their capacity, or certain technical weaknesses in the handling of the violence. Some accounts have raised the question in a manner so as to dismiss it, or so as to point to the lack of evidence to support any assertion of official complicity. Yet, it is well known that the Muslim population in the country's west has long suffered systemic discrimination and violence, and that officials across the government ranks harbour openly discriminatory and sometimes racist or xenophobic views about this population. Such views have been on the public record for a long time, and in these days they have again been heard in the language of denial about the existence in the west of Burma of an indigenous Muslim population, about the problem being one of population pressure from Bangladesh, and about matters of national sovereignty.
Such language, which is found not only among government officials but also among otherwise politically progressive groups and individuals, constitutes the basis for the denial of the fundamental political and civic legitimacy of Muslim people in the west of Burma as a category of persons, which in turn engenders violence of the sort that we have seen in the last two weeks. Therefore, whether or not direct evidence exists of official complicity in the violence, we must ask after the implications for how these events are handled by state agencies when those personnel comprising these agencies are at very least openly predisposed to favour one side in the conflict over the other.
In this regard, we must ask also whether or not violence can continue in the manner that it has over a large number of days in a country with an extensive security apparatus that historically has mobilized whenever required to counteract threats to the state itself, or whether it may not be serving some parties' strategic purposes to allow the violence to go on. No power vacuum exists today in Burma into which such protracted and directed violence can slip as if by accident. The same administrative and security organs are operating at the local and regional level as have operated for the last quarter of a century. They are staffed by the same persons as in the past, and command the same type of coercive force as in the past. Although political conditions at a national level may lead to some changed perceptions of the state and to some changed ideas about political and social opportunity, these changes alone do not sufficiently account for events of the last few days.
Indeed, episodes of large-scale communal violence in the west of Burma during earlier periods have occurred only where a space has been created to enable them, or where as deliberate program has been put in place to effect them: as in the pogroms against Muslims under the military government during the 1990s and thereafter, which drove hundreds of thousands into Bangladesh. Although most were subsequently repatriated to Burma--many reportedly going against their will--they have continued to suffer a range of institutionalized abuses in the regions where the violence is now occurring, including through denial of identity documents, denial of rights to travel, and denial of basic health and educational services, employment opportunities and so on.
In all of this, the role of the Burmese-language media to date has been disappointing. Whereas the expatriate broadcast media are normally reliable and informative sources of news, in these events they have so far played a counterproductive role. Some have broadcast statements by commentators, by persons in government and on the ground that begin with the presumption that Muslims have no legitimate right to live in Arakan State, and that there is in Burma no such thing as an indigenous Muslim population. Some interviewees have referred to Muslims in derogatory and inflammatory terms, without comment from the broadcasters or with their tacit approval. They have also uncritically reported on many events that ought to raise serious questions, such as the death in custody of one of the three men accused of raping and killing a woman that sparked the violence on May 28, which has been described as suicide.
Given that the domestic print media continue to suffer from censorship and have in recent days been warned against reporting anything that may be contrary to the official position on events--with threats of severe criminal sanctions for failure to comply--and given that the expatriate broadcast media have greater reach into the affected regions than other media agencies, their role is of especial importance. Although in the last couple of days broadcasts have shown more sensitivity to the complexity and multiple dimensions of the violence, more remains to be done. Therefore the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on these media to reconsider their role and how they may play a more constructive part in responding to unfolding events in the coming days.