The systematic persecution of minority Muslims is on the rise across Myanmar and not confined to the northwestern state of Rakhine, where recent violence has sent nearly 90,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing, a Myanmar rights group said on Tuesday.
The London-based independent Burma Human Rights Network (BRN) said that persecution was backed by the Myanmar government, elements among the country’s Buddhist monks and ultra-nationalist civilian groups.
“The transition to democracy has allowed popular prejudices to influence how the new government rules, and has amplified a dangerous narrative that casts Muslims as an alien presence in Buddhist-majority [Myanmar],” the group said in a report.
“Democratic reform is going to be derailed if we don’t handle these issues properly,” said Kyaw Win, BRN’s executive director.
The report draws on more than 350 interviews in more than 46 towns and villages over an eight-month period since March 2016.
Myanmar’s government made no immediate response to the report. Authorities deny discrimination and say security forces in Rakhine are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists.”
Besides Rohingya Muslims, the report also examines the wider picture of Muslims of different ethnicities across Myanmar following waves of communal violence in 2012 and 2013.
The report says many Muslims of all ethnicities have been refused national identification cards, while access to Islamic places of worship has been blocked in some places.
At least 21 villages around Myanmar have declared themselves “no-go zones” for Muslims, backed by the authorities, it said.
Some of the places had erected signs saying that Muslims could not stay overnight, buy or rent property, and that local people were prohibited from marrying a Muslim, said Kyaw Win.
He said there appeared to be a “systematic and institutionalized” policy to divide communities around the country.
In Rakhine state, the report highlighted growing segregation between Buddhists and Muslim communities and severe travel restrictions for the Muslim Rohingya which limited their access to health care and education.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh since August 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people, according to official figures.
The treatment of Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingya is one of the biggest challenges facing Myanmar de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who critics say has not done enough to protect the Muslim minority from persecution.
“How can you have economic development if people are at each others’ throats?,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights lobby.
“It’s not only about Muslims, it’s also about Christians in Kachin and Chin states…there’s a thicket of contradictory directives and local arrangements [about non-Buddhist religious groups] made out as though they are law.”
Robertson said the Rakhine state crisis was raising concerns that democratic reforms in Myanmar may be at risk if ethnic minorities cannot be properly protected by Suu Kyi’s government.
The exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar is also stoking fears of a full-blown humanitarian crisis with regional implications. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have all voiced concerns in recent days about the deteriorating situation.
Lilianne Fan, international director of Geutanyoe Foundation, a humanitarian group active in Indonesia’s Aceh province and Malaysia, suggested that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) may be the best hope of preventing a humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, as relations between Suu Kyi’s government and the United Nations have deteriorated badly in recent weeks.
The rights activists also pointed squarely at Myanmar’s autonomous military for exacerbating the situation. Robertson said recent satellite images of major arson attacks in the conflict area in Rakhine state resembled a “scorched earth policy” that was implemented “almost immediately” after the August 25 insurgent attacks.
Robertson also expressed concerns about reports that Myanmar security officials may have planted mines in the ‘no-man’s land’ between Myanmar and Bangladesh after a 19-year-old woman had her leg blown off yesterday after stepping on a mine in the area. He noted many civilians had arrived in Bangladesh refugee camps with “bullet and shrapnel wounds.”
Kyaw Win placed the blame squarely at the feet of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, saying he was the only person with the power to stop the growing violence against Muslims – as well as the “artificial fear that Rohingya are a threat to the country.”