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 nearly 90 dead, according to official figures.
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 diplomat added.
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 organizations 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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation decided to take the issue to the UN.
It condemned “the continued recourse to violence by the Myanmar authorities against the members of this minority and their refusal to recognize 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.
However, he said it was clear his government needed to do much more given the barrage of rumors 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 reporters.
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,” Jim Della-Giacoma of the think tank International Crisis Group said.
“The government acknowledges the problem and concedes there is a role for some outsiders,” he added.