Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has declared a state of emergency in the town of Meikhtila and the surrounding region due to ongoing violence between the Muslim and Buddhist population in central Burma.
The violence allegedly began when a Muslim owner of a gold shop got into a dispute with his Buddhist customers. Muslims are now fleeing the area and seeking refuge from marauding Buddhists who have killed an estimated 20 people and have burned homes and at least 5 mosques in the town, according to news reports.
This latest bout of violence is a reminder that despite Burma’s significant political reforms, the country remains either unable or unwilling to sufficiently protect the human rights of minority groups.
In declaring a state of emergency, Sein has allowed the Burmese military to assist the overloaded police force. While many view military assistance as a positive development, the Burmese military has a history of abuse toward the civilian population, including the Muslim community. This latest upheaval is reminiscent of Burma’s Muslim–Buddhist conflict in the Rakhine state just last year, where an estimated 115,000 people were displaced and approximately 100 people died.
Escalating violence and rioting has led the police to evacuate close to 1,500 people from Meikhtila. A veiled Buddhist monk even put a knife to the neck of one Associated Press photographer and forced him to surrender his camera’s memory stick. Attempts to suppress press freedom are not unusual, but these events demonstrate that despite Burma’s relaxation of media censorship, protection of press freedoms is not a given.
In its effort to respond appropriately to Burma’s reforms, the U.S. must be careful not to get ahead of events. Burma policy must be geared to the long term and maintain enough leverage to influence developments there for the next several years—until reforms are complete. According to Heritage’s Walter Lohman:
What the U.S. should want from Burma is simple: rule of law, respect for internationally recognized human right standards, and stability. This will not happen overnight. At the most realistic levels, the U.S. should want Burma to take demonstrable steps toward developing a genuine democratic system, permitting real political dissent, further loosening restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi, freeing political prisoners, protecting basic human rights, combating its drug trade, and severing its ties with North Korea.
The U.S. should not fully lift sanctions on Burma until it has a proven track record of upholding the rule of law and ensuring safety and security for the myriad of minority groups in the country. Recent developments are indication that, in fact, the Obama Administration has already gone too far.