Rural Rathidaung Township riverside village boat landing
Photo Credit: Nora Rowley
In June 2012, deadly sectarian violence erupted in western Burma’s Arakan State between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (as well as non-Rohingya Muslims). The violence occurred due to reports circulated on May 28 that an Arakan woman was raped and killed in the town of Ramri by three Muslim men. Details of the crime circulated locally through pamphlets, and on June 3, a large group of Arakan villagers in Toungop stopped a bus and brutally killed 10 Muslims on board. Human Rights Watch confirmed that local police and soldiers stood by and watched the killings without intervening.
On June 8, thousands of Rohingya rioted in Maungdaw town after Friday prayers, destroying Arakan property and killing an unknown number of Arakan residents. Sectarian violence then quickly swept through the Arakan State capital, Sittwe, and surrounding areas. Mobs from both communities stormed unsuspecting villages and neighborhoods, killing residents and destroying homes, shops, and houses of worship. Since almost no government security was present to stop the violence, people armed themselves with basic weapons and started taking the law into their own hands. Although government claimed that 78 people were killed, more than 100,000 people were displaced from their homes. The conflicts were further instigated by inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda.
Although tensions had risen dramatically in Arakan State, local residents from each community told Human Rights Watch that the Burmese authorities provided no protection and did not appear to have taken any special measures to preempt the violence. On June 10, as the unrest seemed on the verge of spreading beyond the borders of Arakan State, Burmese President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency, and transferred civilian power to the Burmese army in affected areas of the state. At this point, the state security forces also carried out acts of violence against Rohingya communities. For example, In northern Arakan State, the Nasaka border guard force, the army, police, and Lon Thein committed killings, mass arrests, and looting against Rohingya. Local residents informed that soon after the sectarian violence began, state security forces conducted systematic and abusive sweeps in the predominantly Muslim townships of northern Arakan State, claiming to be looking for suspected Rohingya rioters. Between June 12-24, these forces entered villages around Maungdaw Township, opened fire on Rohingya, looted properties, and rounded up men and boys, taking them to unknown locations where most have since been held incommunicado. Family members of those arrested told Human Rights Watch that they had not heard from their relatives since the security forces boarded them onto trucks and took them away.
In the aftermath, local Arakan leaders and members of the Arakan community in Sittwe called for the forced displacement of the Muslim community from the city and local Buddhist monks have initiated a campaign of exclusion, calling on the local Buddhist population to neither befriend nor do business with Muslims.
The sectarian violence and abuses that have followed have created urgent humanitarian needs for both Arakan and Rohingya communities. However, due to restricted access to the affected areas, particularly to northern Arakan State, has affected humanitarian aid. UN and independent humanitarian agencies and their local staff have been subjected to arrests, threats, and intimidation. At the time of greatest need, their work has been brought almost to a standstill.
Government’s position on Rohingya
In a European tour during the crisis democracy icon and opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi (her first trip abroad in 24 years) identified the sectarian violence in Arakan State as the result of the government’s failure to enforce its immigration laws. She provided credence to the view that Rohinya are foreigners or ‘intruders’ by saying that she “does not know” if the Rohingya should be considered Burmese. She suggested “some of them” would meet the requirements of the citizenship law, and blamed the law’s lack of clarity.
A number of other longtime democracy activists have made incendiary anti-Rohingya statements. In early June, prominent pro-democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi spoke at a press conference in Rangoon and categorically denied that the Rohingya are an ethnic group of Burma. While conceding that ethnicity is not a requirement for citizenship, he blamed the sectarian violence on “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” and “mischievous provocations from the international community,” referring to Western attention to the Rohingya. “Such interfering efforts of powerful nations on this issue without fully understanding the ethnic groups of Burma, will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation,” he said.