World Bulletin/News Desk
A government-appointed commission investigating sectarian violence in western Myanmar last year has issued proposals to ease tensions there - including doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims.
But an executive summary of the report offered no concrete solutions for returning some 125,000 displaced Arakan Muslims to their homes, saying the widespread segregation of Buddhists and Muslims is a temporary fix that must be enforced for now.
Attacks by Rakhine Buddhists against Arakan Muslims in June and October left nearly 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, to flee burning homes.
The report's summary said concerns expressed by Buddhists in Rakhine state over the rising population of Muslims they see as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had "undermined peaceful coexistence" between the two communities. It said the introduction of family planning education should be voluntary, but "would go some way to mitigating" toward ameliorating the crisis.
The report also called for a crackdown on hate speech and stepped-up aid for the displaced ahead of monsoon rains expected in May, and urged the government to determine the citizenship status of all those living in Rakhine state.
Most Arakan are effectively stateless despite the fact that some have lived in Myanmar for generations. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not include them as one of 135 recognized ethnicities.
Thein Sein appointed a 27-member panel last year to investigate the causes of the conflict and recommend measures to prevent further violence. Its findings had been delayed several times.
The report did not use the word Arakan, instead conforming to the government practice of calling them "Bengalis."
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the report "fails to address the need for accountability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that happened in last June and October."
"By failing to hold responsible the individuals who committed these grievous crimes, the government will miss deterring precisely those extremists who are prepared to use more violence in the future to achieve their aims," Robertson said.
He also said that doubling the number of security forces "without first ensuring implementation of reforms to end those forces' impunity is a potential disaster."
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 neighbourhoods and businesses razed in 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.
AThe trial of seven Muslim men accused of murdering a monk, allegedly the first killing in the March unrest in Meikhtila, is expected to conclude this week. Those on trial say they are innocent.
The sound of hammers ring across the city as workers dismantle what is left of the Muslim neighbourhood, stone by stone. There are no signs of Muslims on the streets.
More than 8,000 Muslims are being held in seven official camps that are off-limits to journalists. Thousands more have crowded into unofficial camps in villages near Meikhtila, where police also restrict their movements and prevented them from speaking with Reuters.
Victims in relief camps "live freely and happily", reported the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on April 5.
The government has promised to help Muslims rebuild their homes, but reconstruction has yet to begin. Building more than 1,500 houses burned down or damaged would cost $7 million, it said.
Some Buddhist residents said returning Muslims were unwelcome.
Such hostility could influence the outcome of the ongoing murder trial, suggested Thein Than Oo, a lawyer for three of the seven Muslim accused, who believed the judge is under pressure from Buddhists to deliver a guilty verdict.
"He has to satisfy the people," he said.
He pointed to the case of the Muslim owner of a gold shop, his wife and an employee who on April 11 received 14 years without parole for theft and assault. The charges stemmed from an argument with a Buddhist customer, which sparked the first bout of rioting earlier on the day the monk was killed.
The court imposed harsh sentences due to the violence that erupted afterwards, said Thein Than Oo.
Most victims of the rioting were Muslim but no Buddhists have appeared in court. The district judge said they would be tried after the current trial ends.
Neither the judge nor the district police could say if any monks would be charged. Monks led many of the mobs, according to dozens of witnesses interviewed by Reuters.
New York-based Physicians for Human Rights called for an independent investigation into a report of a massacre at an Islamic school on March 21. The group said 32 students and four teachers were missing.
One student, Soe Min Oo, 18, said he fled with other students and teachers when the school was attacked, taking refuge with other Muslims in a nearby compound.
Soe Min Oo said the mob tossed petrol bombs into the compound until police arrived and offered to bring the nearly 200 Muslims to safety. But the few dozen officers could only protect some of them, said Soe Min Oo, pausing frequently to fight back tears.
He said the Buddhist mob hit them and threw stones as they left the compound, and those who came out last were beaten to death. He saw three friends killed.
"I've never faced anything like this situation before," said Soe Min Oo. "I feel very sad."
Soe Min Oo spoke to Reuters in a tiny Muslim village about half an hour outside Meikhtila where he was staying with family. During the interview, an official who wouldn't say who he worked for arrived on a motorcycle and demanded names and contact numbers from journalists.
Mandalay chief minister Ye Myint denied a Reuters request to visit official camps in his region, which includes Meikhtila. Immigration and police officers banned access to an unofficial camp in Yindaw, a village about a 45-minute drive from Meikhtila.Last Mod: 30 Nisan 2013, 16:59