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Burma’s Yet Incomplete Democratic Transition

The United Nations on Friday issued a report on the Burmese military’s abuse of Rohingya Muslim civilians in northern Rakhine State over the past four months. The campaign of murders, mass gang-rapes, brutal beatings and disappearances clearly rises to the level of crimes against humanity.

The report draws on interviews with 204 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh, most of whom witnessed killings. Almost half reported having a family member killed. Of the 101 women interviewed by U.N. investigators, more than half said they had been raped. Young children were killed in front of their parents. The U.N. has confirmed the equally graphic findings of investigators from private human-rights groups.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, “The devastating cruelty to which these children have been subjected is unbearable. What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her—what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this? . . . The killing of people as they prayed, fished to feed their families, the brutal beating of children as young as two and an elderly woman aged 80—the perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable.”

The Rohingyas have long been one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Despite having lived in Burma for generations, in 1982 a new law took away their citizenship rights and rendered them stateless. Restrictions on movement, marriage, education and religious freedom followed. In 2012, two dramatic outbursts of violence left thousands displaced and the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists bitterly divided.

Failure to find a humane and just solution led a small group of Rohingyas to attack Burmese border police posts in October, killing nine police officers. This provoked the Burmese army into a grossly disproportionate response that has resulted in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Calls for an international response are growing. In December, 23 international figures, including 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates and several former prime ministers, warned that the situation “has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies—Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.” They called for an independent U.N. inquiry to establish the truth.

Last week’s report goes some way to fulfilling that need, and it adds more weight to demands for a full commission of inquiry. Another option is an investigation by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to ensure that, in the words of the U.N. high commissioner, “victims have access to justice, reparations and safety.”

As devastating as the stories from the Rohingyas are, theirs is not the only human-rights and humanitarian crisis in Burma. As it conducted ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, the Burmese army intensified its assault on the Kachin ethnic group and other minorities in northern Shan State.

Thousands have been displaced in recent weeks, and a Catholic church was bombed in December. Two Kachin Christian pastors, Nawng Latt and Gam Seng, were arrested after taking journalists to the bombed church to gather evidence. They are due to appear in court Tuesday, charged under the Unlawful Association Act for allegedly aiding Kachin rebels, a charge they deny.

Burma’s human-rights abuses are not restricted to its peripheries. Buddhist nationalists have waged a campaign of anti-Muslim hatred across the country for the past four years. This led to outbreaks of violence and laws that restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage, violating freedom of religion or belief.

The assassination of Burma’s most prominent Muslim lawyer and constitutional expert, U Ko Ni, in front of Yangon Airport last week is a reminder that the country’s political system remains a highly disputed work in progress. This murder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal advisor, who had been outspoken in calls for constitutional reform, is a warning shot designed to stoke further fear and instability.

A year ago the world celebrated Burma’s peaceful transition to democracy, but it’s now clear that the military is determined to hang on to much of its power.

Under the constitution, the military remains in control of the Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defense ministries, meaning Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership is tenuous. While she could have done more to speak out, she does not control the troops. Only Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, has the power to stop the killing and rapes.

The international community must now act to hold the Burmese military to account for its crimes. Burma’s future hangs in the balance.

Mr. Figel is the European Union’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. Mr. Rogers is a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of three books on Burma.

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