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Myanmar forces accused of 'ethnic cleansing' as EU ends sanctions

April 22, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Two boys stand near their destroyed home April 5 in Meiktila, Myanmar. Recent sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims has left dozens dead, and Human Rights Watch said Monday that the attacks on Rohingya Muslims amount to crimes against humanity.
Two boys stand near their destroyed home April 5 in Meiktila, Myanmar. Recent… (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)

The European Union discarded the last of its economic sanctions against Myanmar on Monday, despite fresh reports that Rohingya Muslims there face bloody and persistent attempts at "ethnic cleansing."

The decision worried activists working to help the ethnic minority. They warned that it was premature. “The international community is quite keen now to do business with Burma," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project. "I’m afraid this commercial interest may weaken their pressure on the government.”

In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said Buddhist monks and local leaders have orchestrated a deadly campaign to purge Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, a coastal area on the Bay of Bengal. The rampant and coordinated attacks amount to crimes against humanity, the rights group said.

The latest outbreak of slayings and destruction in October was permitted and sometimes even perpetrated by soldiers and police, according to the rights group. When people in the village of Yan Thei took up sticks and crude weapons to defend themselves from a mob armed with swords and Molotov cocktails, government forces disarmed them and assured the Rohingya they would protect them.

“But later they broke that promise,” a 25-year-old survivor told the rights group. Undeterred, their attackers “beat and killed us very easily. The security did not protect us from them.” At least 70 people were killed there on a single day, including 28 children, according to the report.

The findings emerged the same day that the BBC released video of police standing idle as mobs ransacked a Muslim gold shop and torched buildings in central Myanmar. One man writhes on the ground, burning, as policemen watch. The BBC said the video was taken last month.

The bloodshed has alarmed activists at the same time that Myanmar, also known as Burma, has taken steps toward greater democracy and openness. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was allowed to stand for election and is now a member of parliament. The government grip on the press and protest has been loosened.

Applauding the changes, the U.S. has steadily eased restrictions, allowing new investment in Myanmar for the first time in more than a decade. The EU first lifted economic sanctions last year and decided to permanently scrap them Monday.

“The EU is willing to open a new chapter in its relations with Myanmar/Burma, building a lasting partnership,” said a draft EU foreign ministers' statement obtained by Agence France-Presse. However, it added that “there are still significant challenges to be addressed."

The deadly violence is the latest episode in decades of ethnic strife in the country. Though most Rohingya were born in Myanmar and many have lived in the country for generations, the Rohingya are in effect barred from citizenship there, rendering them stateless.

Last year, tens of thousands of Rohingya tried to escape by sea to Bangladesh, Malaysia or Thailand, but many were turned back to their tormentors. After the raging violence pushed more than 125,000 people out of their homes, the government threw up obstacles to helping the displaced.

Human Rights Watch said that in many areas, local government forces were acting like jailers, keeping the Rohingya away from jobs and blocking them from getting aid. Corpses were dumped by a government truck near one camp for the displaced, an apparent threat to make the Rohingya leave for good, according to the rights group.

Last July, President Thein Sein called for “illegal” Rohingya to be sent elsewhere. Months later, as alarm rose about the attacks, the Myanmar leader condemned the “senseless violence.” But activists say there has been little done to hold the perpetrators accountable or prevent future violence.

“These nice words aren’t being translated into actions,” Lewa of the Arakan Project said in a Skype interview from Thailand. Conditions for the Rohingya remain “appalling.”

Ironically, Lewa said, “the reform process became a vehicle for this hatred to suddenly erupt.” Ethnic groups once firmly under the thumb of the military were free to organize -- for good or ill.

The EU arms embargo on Myanmar will remain in place, according to news reports. 

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