This week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a detailed, and devastating, report on abuses against Muslim Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine (also known as Arakan) State. The report claims that the most heinous of all crimes—crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing—were committed against Rohingya last year. It conclusively shows that, contrary to the Myanmar government’s claims that the violence against Rohingya last year erupted spontaneously, monks and local political parties had been agitating for ethnic cleansing against Rohingya well in advance of last year’s violence, in some cases with local government complicity. It also reveals that once the violence started, local security forces in Rakhine State did little to stop the burning of mosques, evictions of Muslims, and killings of Muslims. In some cases, HRW shows, the security forces actively participated in the orgy of violence and then rounded up almost only Rohingya, while leaving Buddhist perpetrators untouched. Even now, it finds, in villages in Rakhine State where Rohingya have not been forced to flee, they are still being subjected to draconian restrictions by local officials and security forces.
HRW probably released the report this week because they wanted to time it to a decision being made by the European Union on whether or not to lift nearly all remaining sanctions on Myanmar. The decision was supposed to be released this week, and indeed it was. Unfortunately, HRW’s report seems to have little impact on the EU—or on any other Western democracies, which have shifted 180 degrees, going from viewing Myanmar’s government as nothing but thugs to viewing it as unwaveringly set on reform. The EU still went ahead and lifted most sanctions. Still, HRW shows that, contrary to this new view, Myanmar still faces enormous hurdles, and the government is hardly comprised of simply technocrats and reformers.