YANGON — Myanmar grew used to international criticism under a notoriously brutal junta, but reformist leaders tackling the fallout from deadly communal unrest are facing a new reality — having to listen.
Festering animosity between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state erupted in June leaving, according to official figures, nearly 90 dead.
Whole villages lie decimated as a result of the fighting, leaving tens of thousands displaced, many from the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority who have long suffered persecution in the country and elsewhere.
Access to the affected areas is restricted, but a steady stream of foreign diplomats and media have visited, eager to bear witness to the aftermath of unrest that has caught the attention of the Western and Islamic world.
“The Burmese have fully joined the global stage,” said a foreign diplomat, who asked not to be named.
“They discovered (the unrest) has an international impact which they did not imagine and suddenly found that it was not just an isolated problem in a corner of the country.”
The violence, ignited by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and the revenge mob killing of 10 Muslims, quickly caught the attention of the outside world.
Human Rights organisations have accused Myanmar forces of opening fire on the Rohingya while the UN human rights chief warned of a stream of reports “alleging discriminatory and arbitrary responses by security forces” against Muslims.
Soon after, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) decided to take the issue to the United Nations.
It condemned “the continued recourse to violence by the Myanmar authorities against the members of this minority and their refusal to recognise their right to citizenship”.
While the crisis went far beyond just religion, it also caught the attention of fundamentalists, with Islamic extremists threatening jihad and the Pakistani Taliban warning of repercussions unless Islamabad severed relations with Naypyidaw.
The government scrambled to deny abuses, particularly religious oppression and — after initial reticence — tried to open the area to representatives from international governments and aid agencies.
“Most of them understood the situation well, but some might not have got the full picture,” said Zaw Htay, a director at the presidential office, of the numerous foreign visitors coming to the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.
But he said it was clear his government needed to do much more given the barrage of rumours and insults that spread across the Internet, heightening tension within Myanmar and causing international alarm.
“Today is a time of transparency and telecommunications have become very fast. The problem mainly started online,” he told AFP.
The approach is a marked change in tack from that taken after cyclone Nargis in 2008 left 138,000 dead or disappeared and saw the junta slam shut its borders and refuse foreign aid.
“This government is acting in a very different way and it is now much more exposed to international public opinion, this is a good thing,” said Jim Della-Giacoma of the think tank International Crisis Group.
“The government acknowledges the problem and concedes there is a role for some outsiders,” he said.
Among the foreigners invited to help in Rakhine state were the Indonesian Red Cross, which sent a team of aid workers last month with 500 hygiene kits, 3,000 blankets and 10,000 sarongs.
“There is also a private role for some quiet diplomacy here,” Della-Giacoma added, saying regional neighbours could be pivotal in discussions.
Anxious to show goodwill, President Thein Sein set up a commission representing all sides, including former political prisoners, to investigate the cause of the violence and propose long-term solutions.
But his statements on the Rohingya — viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the government and many ordinary Burmese — have appeared contradictory, swinging from urging communal harmony to suggesting the stateless group be deported or put in camps.
The issue is likely to be high on the agenda in the Myanmar leader’s upcoming trip to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly for the first time since taking power.
But both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also travelling to the US on Sunday, are wary of any statements that could be seen as supporting the Rohingya with public opinion in such a high state of volatility.
A Myanmar academic, who asked not to be named, said the best way to deal with the situation was impartiality and action to ameliorate conditions in the devastated area.
“There is a way to go there: don’t take sides and don’t talk too much. If you really want to help them up, help them up. We need to rebuild houses, monasteries, mosques, schools… and we need to educate people.”
He added: “Talk less, do more.”