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Religious violence in Myanmar, the consequences of Government inaction in tackling prejudice and discrimination – UN expert

GENEVA (28 March 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, today expressed serious concerns over the spread of violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Myanmar and urged bold steps by the Government to counteract this frightening trend.

“The Government must take immediate action to stop the violence from spreading to other parts of the country and undermining the reform process. This includes stemming campaigns of discrimination and hate speech which are fuelling racist and, in particular, anti-Muslim feeling in the country. And it involves holding to account those responsible for acts of violence and destruction against religious and ethnic minorities,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“The warning signs have been there since the communal violence in Rakhine State last June and the Government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim communities across the country, and to tackle the organised and coordinated mobs that are inciting hatred and violently attacking Muslim communities,” he added.

Last week saw violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Mandalay region in central Myanmar that left 12,000 persons displaced and unconfirmed numbers dead. Subsequently, a curfew and state of emergency has been imposed in four townships in Mandalay region. There are reports of violence spreading to Bago and Yangon. In June and October last year, inter-communal violence in Rakhine State, Northwest Myanmar, left 120,000 internally displaced and, according to Government figures, nearly 200 dead.

Mr. Ojea Quintana welcomed calls from Government leaders, including the President’s televised address to the nation earlier today, for compassion, tolerance, understanding and empathy amongst people of all faiths in Myanmar. He also notes the President’s warning to “political opportunists” and “religious extremists” not to misuse religion to incite hatred. However, he believes State authorities need to do much more. This includes addressing allegations that some State officials, including local politicians and administrators, have been encouraging discriminatory views and inciting hatred.

The Rapporteur also expressed concern about religious leaders or their supporters publicly spreading hate speech, including through social media. “I have seen worrying footage of religious leaders, including Buddhist monks, seemingly advocating religious intolerance. The Government must clearly distance itself from such incitement to hatred, and instruct its officials to do likewise. Although Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, the Government must promote tolerance of all faiths and religions.” Furthermore, journalists attempting to cover the violence in Mandalay have reportedly been attacked and threatened by armed mobs, and the Rapporteur highlighted the obligation of the State authorities to protect journalists.

While noting the President’s statement that the security forces will be used to protect the life, liberty and security of the people, the Rapporteur warned against a heavy-handed approach that sees strong military action as the only way to restore public order, and urged a more holistic approach to address the root causes of inter-communal tensions.

In addition, Mr. Ojea Quintana revealed, “I have received reports of State involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs. This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the State or implicit collusion and support for such actions.” Other allegations received by the Special Rapporteur have indicated that the military and police may be arbitrarily detaining people based on religious and ethnic profiling.

“Tackling discrimination is fundamental to establishing the rule of law, and impunity for acts of violence and discrimination must no longer be tolerated,” he said. “The military and police must now be held to account for human rights violations committed against ethnic and religious minorities.”

While acknowledging the strong stance taken by the President’s Office, the Rapporteur called on other institutions such as Parliament, the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission to play their role in protecting constitutionally guaranteed rights, including freedom of religion. He also emphasised the role of civil society and political parties in tackling prejudice and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and praised the work of 88 Generation leaders such as Min Ko Naing, who had travelled to Meikhtila following the violence and worked to ease tensions and promote understanding.

In the Special Rapporteur’s latest report to the Human Rights Council earlier this month*, he warned that the crisis in Rakhine State could spread to other parts of the country, and issued a number of recommendations to the Government aimed at addressing the widespread discrimination and prejudice against ethnic and religious minority groups in Myanmar, including lifting restrictions on discriminatory practices against Muslim communities, and reviewing the functions of the border security forces.

Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana (Argentina) was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2008. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/countries/mm/mandate/index.htm

(*) Report available at: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.58_AUV.pdf
Myanmar Government response to report available at: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A.HRC.22.58.Add.1_AV.pdf

UN Human Rights, country page – Myanmar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Daniel Collinge (+41 789 113 398 / dcollinge@ohchr.org) or write to sr-myanmar@ohchr.org 

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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