Seamstress Thida Htwe was walking home from her tailoring work on a remote Myanmar road in late May when attackers took the 27-year-old by knife point to a forest where they raped her, slit her throat, and took her gold jewelry before dumping her body in the mangrove trees.
Local Burmese, including Buddhist monks, distributed incendiary pamphlets about the crime, and allegations quickly spread among the Buddhist majority in Rakhine state that Rohingya Muslims were to blame, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The group based its report on the incident and its aftermath, which United Nations officials confirmed, on 57 interviews with both Rohingya and Burmese.
Six days later, as three Rohingya suspects sat in jail, a Buddhist mob stopped a bus in a nearby town and killed 10 Muslim men on board. Local police and soldiers watched without intervening, according to Human Rights Watch and UN officials. Within a week, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency to quell riots that have killed 88 people and left villages in ruins.
The ethnic strife is complicating Myanmar’s evolving ties with the U.S. and Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, as authorities struggle with how to treat the Rohingya, a minority that’s denied citizenship in Myanmar and faces persecution in Asia similar to that of other stateless Muslim groups such as the Mideast’s Kurds.
“It’s a serious issue that will hurt Myanmar’s reputation in the long term,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels- based policy research organization. “If Myanmar wants to enter the fold of modern and democratic states, it needs to grapple with this very fundamental issue to give equal rights to all ethnic groups, all religious groups.”
The Rohingya’s status leaves them trapped doing unskilled, poorly paid labor in one of the world’s poorest nations.
While Myanmar has begun to attract companies such as Visa Inc. (V) and Coca-Cola Co. (KO) after taking steps toward democracy, the Rohingya’s plight has flummoxed both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Neither openly supports citizenship for the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi, though a democratic icon, skirted the issue on a European tour in June when she collected a Nobel Peace Prize she won during her 15 years under house arrest.
“They are very loath to discuss this issue directly, publicly and internationally,” Vijay Nambiar, the United Nations’ top adviser on Myanmar who visited the area immediately after the unrest broke out, said in an Aug. 6 interview in New York. “They see this very firmly as a refugee issue and an issue that the international community should solve and ‘take away these people.’”
The three Rohingya suspects were convicted for the rape and murder, according to Human Rights Watch. One reportedly committed suicide in prison, and the other two were sentenced to death, the rights group said in its report. In contrast, there have been no convictions in connection with the killing of the 10 Muslim men “despite hundreds of witnesses to the attack,” according to the report issued last month.
Human Rights Watch says about 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar. The country, formerly known as Burma, has a population of about 64 million, according to the International Monetary Fund. Many Burmese consider the Rohingya illegal migrants from what’s now Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch, which says their presence in modern-day Myanmar predates the start of British colonial rule in 1824.
Thein Sein said in June that the violence spread because of “instigations based on religion and racism” and called on all people to show “a sense of wisdom” and “loving kindness” to halt the fighting. In July, he urged the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to accept Rohingya as refugees and resettle them in third countries -- a suggestion the UNHCR promptly rejected.
Even as the nation undertakes economic and political reforms, the tension among its more than 100 ethnic groups “remains a potentially destabilizing factor,” the Asian Development Bank said in an Aug. 20 report, “Myanmar in Transition.”
Spurred by increased foreign investment and commodity sales, Myanmar’s economy may grow as much as 8 percent a year over the next decade as inflation remains low and the government increases trade ties with neighbors China and India, according to the bank.
While U.S. President Barack Obama last month eased some sanctions that were placed on Myanmar’s former military regime, he’s still considering whether to waive an import ban that Congress voted to extend this month, partly due to concern about the Rohingya.
The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the “ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Myanmar government,” according to a statement released in May. The group, which includes Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, called for the Rohingya to have citizenship and offered humanitarian assistance for Rakhine state.
Myanmar has gone on the defensive, forming a 27-member commission on Aug. 17 that includes Muslim leaders to investigate the violence. Authorities moved to halt the ethnic fighting as quickly as possible, the government said in an Aug. 21 statement, saying the clashes occurred “between two communities within a State of Myanmar following a criminal act.”
“We will not accept any attempt to politically regionalize or internationalize this conflict as a religious issue,” the government said. “Such attempts will not contribute to finding solutions to the problem, but will only complicate the issue further.”
Bangladesh, Myanmar’s predominantly Muslim neighbor, has turned away Rohingya trying to reach safety in makeshift wooden boats. Human Rights Watch says about 200,000 Rohingya live in Bangladesh, a nation with a population of about 169 million, according to the IMF.
In one account chronicled by Human Rights Watch in its 56- page report this month, a Rohingya mother of six said her five- year-old daughter died of starvation after Bangladesh authorities denied entry three times and left her floating under a hot sun in the Bay of Bengal for four days.
“Why should we allow them to enter our country?” Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed told Al Jazeera television in a July 27 interview. “It is not our responsibility; it is theirs. Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country.”
Bangladesh had influxes of about 250,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 1978 and in the early 1990s, followed by repatriation efforts “that were not wholly voluntary,” the UN’s refugee agency said in a December report.
The U.S. State Department said in 2010 that a designated terrorist organization, Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh, “had trained and fielded operatives in Burma to fight on behalf of the Rohingya.” Bangladesh banned the group in 2005, according to the State Department report.
Historians debate the origins of the Rohingya, who unlike the Burmese, speak an Indo-European language, according to Ethnalogue, which categorizes the world’s languages. In Myanmar, they’re referred to as “Bengali.”
In more than a century under British rule, migrants from Bengal, also a colony, swelled the Muslim population along the borders, according to colonial records cited by Aye Chan in a 2005 academic article published by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
As the British East India Company expanded its reach, British policy encouraged Bengali residents of nearby areas to migrate to Arakan, the region now known as Rakhine, as farmers, and there were no boundaries or restrictions on emigration, according to the article.
Ethnic violence against the Muslim minority there can be traced to the departure of the British after Burmese independence in 1948, the paper said.
A 1982 citizenship law grants nationality to people in ethnic groups that were present in the country before the British conquest. That law excludes the Rohingya, along with other minorities of Indian and Chinese descent that aren’t on a list of 135 official ethnic groups.
Myanmar’s recent moves to allow greater Internet freedom have exposed deep-seated hatred toward the Rohingya on social- media sites. Burmese bloggers refer to the Muslim minority as “dogs” or “black,” according to two UN human-rights officials who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
When asked about Burmese attitudes toward the Rohingya, the UN’s Nambiar said, “There is a kind of scare that ‘these’ people from outside are coming over and taking over ‘our’ resources.”
“This has now taken a life of its own,” with “a large number of Burmese in absolute denial,” he said.
Thein Sein undoubtedly will face questions about the Rohingya when he makes his first appearance as president at the UN General Assembly in the final week of September, Nambiar said.
UN officials have told the president, directly and indirectly, “you have to take this head-on. It is incumbent on the government to do more to allay the fears, anxieties and suspicions,” he said.
Suu Kyi may be asked about the issue when she travels to Washington for a scheduled Sept. 19 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda to accept the Congressional Gold Medal, which lawmakers awarded in 2008 while she was under house arrest in Myanmar. She is also scheduled to receive an award from the Atlantic Council in New York on Sept. 21. It will be her first return to the city where she worked at the UN Secretariat from 1969 to 1971.
“We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Geneva on June 14. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”
For a democracy icon who endured years in detention to protest an oppressive military regime, Suu Kyi’s equivocation on the Rohingya has drawn rare criticism.
“There are a lot of theories on why she is silent,” said John Sifton, director of Asia advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “The simplest and most plausible is that it does not win you friends.”
-- Editors: Terry Atlas, John Walcott