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Burma’s Leaders Should Take Steps to Investigate and Prevent Anti-Muslim Violence

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls on Burma’s government to act urgently to halt anti-Muslim incitement and to invite international investigators to launch an immediate independent investigation into a reported massacre of more than two dozen Muslim students in Meiktila on March 21.

PHR investigators, who were in Mandalay when the Meiktila incident occurred, have obtained the names of 32 male students (ages 14-24) and four teachers still missing following the reported attack on their Islamic boarding school, Mingalar Zayone, that allegedly began the night of March 20. Community leaders in Mandalay compiled this list of the missing by comparing the school’s register with the names of those who survived the alleged massacre and were subsequently detained for 48 hours at a police station in Meiktila. Families and community leaders whom PHR interviewed feared that all of the missing were killed.

A BBC correspondent reported in early April that 20 students had been killed. The journalist spoke with Member of Parliament Win Htein, who reported witnessing the deaths of eight boys.

PHR also received reports from community and religious leaders in Mandalay as well as from families whose sons are missing that government officials have refused to return to the families the bodies of children known to have been killed in Meiktila. Some of the 32 missing students reportedly have been identified in photographs of dead bodies taken in Meiktila immediately following the widely reported violent anti-Muslim attacks there last week. PHR urges government officials to respond to families’ requests to receive the bodies of their dead.

Religious violence in central Burma in March leveled entire neighborhoods in several cities and resulted in at least 43 deaths, according to news reports. Many incidents involved attacks against Muslims – who form a minority of Burma’s 60 million people – by assailants from the majority Buddhist population.

“We urge religious and community leaders in Burma to unequivocally denounce violence and to tone down any rhetoric that might incite people to resort to armed attacks,” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “Disputes between ethnic and religious groups must be resolved peacefully.”

Of particular concern are the upcoming Maha Thingyan (Water Festival) festivities April 13-16, in the days leading up to the New Year’s Day celebration April 17. While normally a time for celebration, the festival generates the kinds of large crowds and liberal alcohol consumption that can easily lead to rioting and violence. PHR spoke with a number of Muslim residents in four regions of the country who fear there will be more killings during the Water Festival.

In the past four years, PHR investigators have documented violence and discrimination against the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Rohingya, and Shan ethnic communities. More recently, PHR investigators traveled to Mandalay, Rakhine, Sagaing, and Yangon regions in Burma looking into reports of mounting violence against Muslims. They interviewed witnesses from more than a dozen areas where anti-Muslim violence has occurred during the past six months. The PHR team was in the country in March when it learned of anti-Muslim incidents in Meiktila and nearby communities that claimed dozens of lives, destroyed hundreds of buildings, and displaced thousands of people.

Burma’s advocate-general said state prosecutors are preparing legal cases against people thought responsible for fomenting the recent violence. But it is not clear whether charges will be brought against local officials who allegedly failed to intervene to stop the attacks.

“In some of those incidents, police reportedly stood by and watched while people were attacked and even killed,” McKay said. “The arrests are a positive sign, but there must be a full and impartial investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators. In addition, our preliminary analysis suggests that there is a strong potential for widespread outbursts of anti-Muslim violence in Burma unless government, religious, and community leaders can foster a climate of dialogue and peace building as well as accountability.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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