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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi spokesman: “There is no Rohingya”

As advocates condemn "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya, officials say no such group exists.

death with machetes.

In a sharp departure from the government’s account of “communal violence,” the international watchdog group describes a systematic, organized and partially state-enabled campaign of all-out “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.

“These are not terms Human Rights Watch uses lightly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethnic cleansing is targeting, with a mass attack, a particular ethnic group and driving them out of a geographic area with terror and violent means. That is exactly what happened.”

The architects alleged by Human Rights Watch of mounting this campaign are a patchwork of local Buddhist monastic orders and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, a political camp that dominates the region’s parliament. 

Both are accused of pamphleteering and speechmaking designed to provoke majority Buddhists with warnings that “Bengalis” intend to eliminate their society through overbreeding and outright violence. One circulated tract directly calls for an “ethnic cleansing program.” 

The hate campaigns, according to Human Rights Watch, typically preceded eruptions of bloodshed against Muslim neighborhoods. Police and soldiers are accused in the investigation of disarming Rohingya so that mobs could butcher them and, in a few instances, gunning down Rohingya themselves. 

Human Rights Watch stops short of accusing Myanmar’s President Thein Sein of direct complicity in “crimes against humanity” but condemns his office for failing to adequately punish the culprits.

“Some people may argue that these are local authorities taking action and the people in Nay Pyi Daw (Myanmar’s capital) didn’t know. That is the preferred narrative of some of the diplomats who want to continue looking for heroes among the government ranks,” Robertson said. 

“Well, let’s see what actually happened in terms of command responsibility,” he said. “Where does the buck stop in the (Army)? All of these things would come out in a truly independent, impartial investigation of the violence.”

The Human Rights Watch claims have been dismissed as baseless by both the government’s Ministry of Information and a Rakhine Nationalities Development Party lawmaker, who told the Yangon-based Eleven News Group that the clashes sparked off between those “who want to seize the territory and those who want to defend that territory.”

Dueling visions of Myanmar

In the recent past, Western leaders and watchdogs were relatively united in their view of Myanmar: a place tragically mismanaged by ruling generals who must be pressured into better behavior through sanctions, isolation and the championing of Aung San Suu Kyi.

This consensus has shattered. As Human Rights Watch lodged its charges of “ethnic cleansing” last week, another respected civil liberties outfit, International Crisis Group, presented President Thein Sein with its prestigious “In Pursuit of Peace” award. On the same day, the European Union axed almost all of its Myanmar sanctions — most of which were already suspended.

Despite his rise under a secretive and oppressive army cabal, the former general has been credited with shepherding major reforms: freeing political prisoners, relaxing the elite’s chokehold on the economy and liberating Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The president’s reaction to the peace award, published in Myanmar’s state media, was self-effacing.

“I receive this honor with gratitude and humility at a time when citizens of Myanmar are engaged in an adventure to build a more democratic, open and inclusive society,” Thein Sein said. “I do not believe I received this award as a person but as a representative of a movement to transform a society ... I am also heartened to know that we have friends in the international community who will keep us diligent and honest but pick us up if we stumble.”

Even former political prisoners, whose pro-democracy causes Human Rights Watch has long defended, have openly fretted that claims of “ethnic cleansing” could enflame the crisis. Though anti-Rohingya violence has cooled — an improvement the government ascribes to forced segregation from majority Buddhists — the nation is also riven by a broader wave of anti-Muslim anger in its central towns and cities. 

Riots against non-Rohingya Muslim enclaves, where inhabitants are unquestionably citizens, have left dozens dead in the last two months. The most recent flare up took place April 30 when hundreds of Buddhists armed with staves and bricks stormed a Muslim neighborhood 70 miles north of Yangon, the nation’s largest city, and torched hundreds of homes.

Even Yangon, heavily defended by police, has been transformed by anti-Muslim campaigning. A Buddhist “969” solidarity movement, its title referring to Buddhist numerology, has spread rapidly in the city of roughly four million. Its adherents attempt to shop only at stores bearing the movement’s emblem in an effort to retain wealth among the Buddhist majority and economically isolate Muslims.

These tensions along Myanmar’s western shores and beyond have stirred fears in the UN’s Office on Genocide Prevention. In late March, Adama Dieng, the office’s special advisor on genocide prevention, offered Myanmar officials a written warning: failing to address the “root causes” of the killing will “have serious future consequences which the international community has solemnly promised to prevent.”

But the specter of genocide — a word already favored by some Rohingya activists — has not fallen on Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Robertson said. 

“Rwanda was genocide. We haven’t reached that level. If tomorrow we had the security forces guarding these internally displaced persons camps turn on people and start killing them, then we’d start moving towards genocide,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But ‘crimes against humanity’ is pretty damn bad.”