Rights advocates urge caution on lifting sanctions after violence in Myanmar

Human rights groups are growing increasingly concerned over escalating violence in Myanmar after Buddhist mobs, including monks, took to the streets this week, burning mosques and schools and killing a Muslim man before finally being disbanded by authorities.

The violence on Tuesday is only the latest in a string of anti-Muslim uprisings in the Buddhist-majority South Asian nation, formerly known as Burma, where prolonged human rights violations have continued to taint democratic reforms. If left unchecked, say advocacy groups, the violence threatens to derail the country’s political headway.

“The situation is of great concern,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based group. “If not resolved, this violence has the potential to threaten the country’s transition and its stability.”

More than that, the continued hate crimes from members of the democratic movement could discourage nations that are assisting in Myanmar’s political transition.

“It’s a big deal,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “To see even members of the democratic movement . . . extol reactionary anti-Muslim abuses, it makes people want to turn away from (Myanmar) and help it move through its transition towards democracy.”

The recent violence, which occurred in Lashio, a town in Myanmar’s northern Shan region, signaled a spread of ethnic cleansing efforts, analysts said. Such violence previously had been limited to the country’s central and western regions.

Despite recent democratic reform, Myanmar has continued to be plagued with anti-Muslim violence and ethnic cleansing from the Buddhist majority, a centuries-old conflict that is firmly rooted in the nation’s history. Although the idea of Buddhist violence seems to contradict the oft-held stereotype that Buddhists are nonviolent, experts say that is a Western misperception. The incidents in Myanmar are not the first displays of violence by Buddhists, specialists said, citing bloodshed in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Tuesday’s incident, which came in response to an alleged torching of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man, highlights desperate calls from human rights groups for international action.

“There is no indication that (the violence) is going to stop. It is spreading, but it’s spreading beyond what we all have expected,” said T. Kumar, Amnesty International’s director of international advocacy. “That’s why international pressure is extremely important.”

Since Thein Sein, a former prime minister, assumed the Myanmar presidency from military rule in 2011, the United States has slowly warmed its relations with Myanmar. President Barack Obama last year became the first American president to visit the country, and the administration has pressed for improved relations after years of sanctions imposed on the military dictatorship there. The effort has a bipartisan cast. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this month that he would not support a renewal of U.S. sanctions that were initially imposed in 2003 by the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act.

But the reward of global commerce could send a dangerous message to a country that has largely turned a blind eye to human rights violations, said HRW’s Sifton.

“The (Myanmar) government, although it condemns this hatred from time to time out of the press office…they don’t take the actions that are necessary to clamp down on the lawlessness,” he said. “(The U.S.) has given the rewards they would’ve given if Myanmar met all their pledges. It’s basically sending a message to the regime…you don’t need to reform. You’ll still get the rewards.”