Myanmar must do more to address the escalation of religious hatred and violence following clashes between ultranationalist Buddhists and minority Muslims in Yangon, a senior United Nations envoy said.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told the Guardian she has seen a rise of hate speech and violence in Myanmar, which didn’t receive enough attention from the National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I have, in the past, raised concerns regarding incidents of hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence, and of religious intolerance, and these appear to be drastically escalating,” Lee said.
“I believe that the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric is not receiving the serious attention that it requires, and is too often left unchecked by the authorities,” she added. “This cannot be tolerated any longer. The government must step up to take more concerted efforts to tackle and address such incidents.”
Tensions between majority Buddhists and Myanmar's Muslim minority have accelerated since October after armed Rohingya militants attacked three border guard posts, leading to a massive military counter-offensive causing around 75,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
About 1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state where they are denied citizenship and basic rights. Many in the Buddhist-majority country regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have been widely criticized for failing to speak out on behalf of persecuted religious minorities or to condemn the crackdown.
When asked about the issue during her recent visit to Brussels, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I am not sure quite what you mean by saying that we have not been concerned at all with regards to the allegations of atrocities that have taken place in the Rakhine. We have been investigating them and have been taking action.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected a decision by the U.N.’s human rights council to investigate claims of murder, rape and torture in Rakhine state, saying it would not help “resolve the problems that are arising all the time.”
Last week a fight broke out in a Muslim neighborhood of Yangon after dozens of nationalists raided the home of a family they believed was hiding Rohingya Muslims. Local residents confronted the nationalists and several were injured. The violence came two weeks after the same people had forced the closure of two Muslim schools.
The nationalists had vowed to keep fighting Muslim influence in the country, citing government reluctance to "protect race and religion" in Myanmar.
"We are protecting our people because government authorities are reluctant to do that. Even though many people hate us, we are not creating problems," U Thuseikta, a monk and a senior official of the Patriotic Monks Union, told reporters at a news conference.
Myanmar police said they had arrested two radical Buddhist nationalists in connection with the violence and were seeking the rest, underscoring the authorities' growing concern over rising religious tensions.
"We want to get equal treatment and be protected by the government — we voted for them with our hands," Tin Shwe, a Muslim community leader, told Reuters.