Ambassador Derek Mitchell, Prof. Dr. Wakar Uddin, and BRANA Information Secretary Nay San Oo at the State Department on May 11,2012
YANGON—Intolerance toward Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar has dented some Americans' perceptions of the country, but hasn't significantly altered Washington's views on easing sanctions, the U.S.'s new ambassador in Yangon said.
Like other Western nations, the U.S. has eased some sanctions against Myanmar in recent months, and has signaled it could take further steps to reward Myanmar if its recent round of political and economic reforms continues. But even as relations between the two countries warm, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas that left at least 88 people dead and displaced thousands of others has added a new strain.
"I have to say it did surprise us to the degree that there would be violence so quickly, that it would spread so terribly," said U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"I don't think it affects our view on sanctions," he went on. "It just means we have an even more complex challenge ahead of us in the country."
Mr. Mitchell said the Rohingya conflicts were particularly troubling because they revealed deeper issues of injustice in the country than those usually considered by the international community. In the past, international leaders focused much of their attention on alleged human-rights abuses by the Myanmar military and government. But in the case of the Rohingyas, much of the discrimination comes from everyday citizens, some questioning the right of the Rohingyas merely to live in the country.
"It's unfortunate when you see the depths of intolerance and discrimination….among citizens," Mr. Mitchell said—including "people who otherwise you would think of as progressive and who have fought so long for civil rights," such as Buddhist monks.
As a result, the concerns raised by the recent violence are "broader than what our traditional concern is, which is the system, or the government, or the military," he said. "This had to do with the deep-seated intolerance that seemed to be within the society writ large. So I think that's where the deep disappointment came. And it creates a division between them and us to a degree."
In a statement issued Tuesday and circulated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Thursday, Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted what it called "false and fabricated news reporting" on the Rohingya clashes, which it described as "purely internal affairs of a sovereign state." The violence was "not relating to any kind of religious persecution or religious discrimination," it said, but rather related to a conflict between two communities following a criminal act, widely reported as a rape of a Buddhist woman.
"Therefore," the statement said, "we will not accept any attempt to politically regionalize or internationalize this conflict as a religious issue."
Mr. Mitchell said U.S. officials were sensitive to the feelings among Buddhists in Western Myanmar that they, too, have suffered in recent years, and that international organizations focus too heavily on Rohingya concerns.
But he said that doesn't mitigate the need to aid the Rohingyas, who have struggled for many years to find a home in a region where no government seems to want them. Myanmar excludes them from citizenship laws and restricts their movements and activities, including marriage. Myanmar officials argue that many Rohingyas are living illegally in the country, and say they have done their best to protect them.
The "Rohingya are oppressed by everybody," Mr. Mitchell said. "These people are stateless. They have nowhere to turn. And it is not going to be lost on the international community."
Even so, it's unclear how much leverage U.S. officials will have to pressure the Myanmar government to expand rights for Rohingyas so long as momentum builds to keep easing sanctions. Although the U.S. continues to ban Myanmar imports and maintains some other restrictions, it recently suspended sanctions blocking U.S. investment, and U.S. companies are moving quickly to step up their involvement there.
To investigate the latest violence, Myanmar officials have established a commission whose 27 members include former student activists, representatives from political parties and even some government critics who spent time in jail as political prisoners. The well-known comedian known as Zarganar is a member, as is activist Ko Ko Gyi, who helped lead student protests against the old military regime in 1988. The commission is supposed to submit its findings by Sept. 17.
Although some international organizations applauded the creation of the commission, others remain skeptical. In a joint statement issued last week, a group of international Rohingya associations including the Burmese Rohingya Organisation U.K. said they believe the commission "will not be credible and truly independent" unless Rohingya representatives are added to its membership, which it said included people who had "directly or indirectly" fueled the violence. The groups called for a U.N. commission of inquiry.
In its latest statement on the violence, Myanmar's government said it had created the 27-member commission "with a view to exposing the real cause of the incident and to give advice for the national interest." It added that the government is "working closely" with the international community to bring relief to areas affected by the violence.
—Celine Fernandez contributed to this article