Muslim victims of Myanmar unrest face uncertain future

Muslim victims of Myanmar unrest face uncertain future

Muslim victims of Myanmar unrest face uncertain future

Hla Hla May, a Rohingya Muslim woman displaced by violence, holds her one year old daughter Roshan at a former rubber factory that now serves as their shelter, near Sittwe. Myanmar must urgently address the plight of Muslims displaced by sectarian bloodshed in western Rakhine. REUTERS photo

In Myanmar’s central heartlands, justice and security is elusive for thousands of Muslims who lost their homes in a deadly rampage by Buddhist mobs in March.

Many are detained in prison-like camps, unable to return to neighborhoods and businesses razed by four days of violence in Meikhtila that killed at least 43 people, most of them Muslims, displaced nearly 13,000, and touched off a wave of anti-Muslim unrest fuelled by radical Buddhist monks.

“It’s for their own security,” said a police officer at a camp inside a sports stadium on Meikhtila’s outskirts. The camp holds more than 1,600 people guarded by police with orders not to let them leave, said the officer, who declined to give his name.

A dawn-to-dusk curfew has been in force in Meikhtila since the government declared martial law on March 22. Skeletal walls and piles of rubble are all that remain of Muslim homes and businesses that once covered several blocks at the heart of the town of 100,000 people in the centre of Myanmar.

Trials have begun, but so far only Muslims stand accused, raising fears that courts will further aggravate religious tension by ignoring the Buddhist ringleaders of the violence.

An independent commission released a report on April 29 saying Myanmar must urgently address the plight of Muslims displaced by sectarian bloodshed in its western Rakhine State. It came in response to violence last June and October that killed at least 192 people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims in an area dominated by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

‘Victims live happily’

The trial of seven Muslim men accused of murdering a monk, believed to be the first killing in the March unrest in Meikhtila, is expected to conclude this week. Those on trial say they are innocent.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said detaining internally displaced people (IDP) was a violation of their rights.

“Locking people up in an IDP camp is not a substitute for providing basic security and ensuring communal peace,” he said. “Even if the authorities’ intent is good, they are clearly going about this the wrong way.”

Spokesmen for the president’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the office’s spokesmen, Ye Htut, had previously stressed that the monks involved in the Meikhtila violence made up only a fraction of the 500,000-strong monkhood. “All perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said President Thein Sein in a nationally televised speech on March 28.

Victims in relief camps “live freely and happily,” reported the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on April 5.

The government had promised to help Muslims rebuild their homes, but reconstruction has yet to begin. Rebuilding more than 1,500 houses burned down or damaged would cost $7 million, it said.
The unrest and the combustible sectarian relations behind it are one of the biggest tests of Myanmar’s reform-minded government, which took power in March 2011 after almost half a century of hardline military rule. Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslim.