News this past weekend that the Myanmar government appears to have kicked Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) out of Arakan/Rakhine State is just another disturbing piece of news suggesting that inter-religious hatred in the country is rising, and the Myanmar government continues to deny this powder keg is close to exploding. Doctors without Borders had been working across Arakan/Rakhine State, where it has treated thousands of people. The organization has been working in Myanmar for two decades and, in addition to its work in Arakan/Rakhine State, where over 100,000 people have become refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the past three years, Doctors without Borders also has been a central part of Myanmar’s anti-HIV strategy and treatment for years.
According to the Associated Press, the spokesman for President Thein Sein accused Doctors without Borders of hiring Muslim Rohingya and of creating fabrications about the massacre that apparently occurred in northern Arakan/Rakhine State in January. The government has continued to deny that this massive attack, supposedly led by a Buddhist mob that included local security forces, took place, but the United Nations’ investigation of the massacre appears to be pretty damning. According to the New York Times, the U.N. report on the massacre suggests that the killings on that particular night in Arakan/Rakhine State resulted in the deaths of “at least 40 men, women and children, one of the worst instances of violence against the country’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims.” The killings allegedly included beheadings, including beheadings of Rohingya children, the report states. The national human rights commission also has denied the massacre took place.
The intensity of violence against Rohingya (and non-Rohingya Muslims) in Myanmar has not abated since it began three years ago. In some respects, it has gotten worse, with more people being killed in single attacks than in the past. In addition, while at times in 2012 and 2013 the government of President Thein Sein took a somewhat more humane approach toward the Rohingya, in recent weeks the government seems to have changed course. It has become more obstructionist and in denial about the severity of the problem of anti-Muslim violence, a denial that has culminated in tossing out MSF and refusing to admit the attack in northern Arakan/Rakhine State took place.
Perhaps the Myanmar government, feeling more secure as investors pour into Myanmar and the United States and other countries work toward restoring military-military relations, simply feels no need to even pretend to care about the issue of anti-Muslim attacks. Perhaps, as some Myanmar politicians suggest, the president’s office is taking a harder line on the northern Arakan/Rakhine massacre so that Thein Sein does not look like he is giving into foreign pressure for a real investigation into Buddhist paramilitaries and security forces’ collusion in anti-Muslim massacres. Though Thein Sein is not running for president next year, he does not want the ruling party to look like it is catering to Muslims in a country where radical Buddhists are running wild and are extremely popular among Buddhist ethnic Burmans. National League for Democracy leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, also have basically ignored international pressure for a more serious investigation of the perpetrators of anti-Muslim attacks and have at times encouraged the actions of radical Buddhists. Or perhaps, as some of Thein Sein’s advocates have privately suggested, he wants to take a more proactive and humane approach to the Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence, but he is actually much weaker than the powers of the president suggest, and cannot afford to take on hard-liners on the Rohingya issue when he is pushing other reforms.
Whatever the reason, the Myanmar government’s denials are badly exacerbating what has become a severe human rights crisis in Arakan/Rakhine State; the IDP camps, which I have visited, are among the worst such facilities in the world. Booting one of the finest aid organizations in the world out of the state is hardly going to help.