A government-appointed commission investigating sectarian violence in western Myanmar last year has issued proposals to ease tensions there — including doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims.
The committee said it is unlikely some 100,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims would be returned to their homes anytime soon, saying the widespread segregation of Buddhists and Muslims is a temporary fix that must be enforced for now.
"We cannot recommend swift resettlement to people's original places because that would trigger more riots," said committee secretary Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a member of the pro-government think tank Myanmar Egress.
Two outbreaks of unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June and October left nearly 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, to flee burning homes. The violence appeared to begin spontaneously, but by October had morphed into anti-Muslim pogroms across western Rakhine state that spread last month into central Myanmar.
President Thein Sein appointed the 27-member panel last year to investigate the causes of the conflict and recommend measures to prevent further violence. Its findings had been delayed several times. The panel included former political prisoners, Christians, a Hindu, Muslims, and Rakhine Buddhists, but did not include any Rohingya Muslims.
The report said concerns expressed by Buddhists in Rakhine state over the rising population of Muslims they see as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had "undermined peaceful coexistence" between the two groups. It said the introduction of family planning education "would go some way to mitigating" the crisis.
Committee members emphasized that all family planning initiatives should be voluntary and would focus on educating women about their choices.
"I interviewed those women myself," said Yin Yin New, a former UNICEF official on the committee. "I said why do you have so many children because it makes you poor. She said yes, but we are afraid we'll be penalized by God. The religious leaders have told us we cannot take any contraception."
The report also called for a crackdown on hate speech and stepped-up aid for the displaced ahead of monsoon rains expected in May, and urged the government to determine the citizenship status of all those living in Rakhine state.
The issue has posed a major challenge to the government of Thein Sein, who took office after a long-ruling military junta stepped down two years ago and has since embarked upon a series of widely praised reforms.
Most Rohingya are effectively stateless despite the fact that some have lived in Myanmar for generations. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not include Rohingya as one of its 135 recognized ethnicities.
The report did not use the word Rohingya, instead conforming to the government practice of calling the Rohingya "Bengalis," a reference to their reported South Asian roots.
Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of parliament from Rakhine state, objected to the commission's terminology, saying that the word "Bengali" fails to reflect reality and people's sense of their own identity.
"The report is unfair," he said. "The usage and recommendations are similar to what Rakhine ethnic people have been demanding."
Immigration officials have begun registering people in the state, as a first step on the road to citizenship. But the debate over terminology is hampering the process, which is already complicated by a lack of access to documents and a history of corruption.
On Friday, authorities registering people in a Muslim refugee camp as Bengali were blocked by a crowd demanding to be recognized as Rohingya. Police fired, injuring at least one person, a 15-year-old boy, according to Shwe Maung.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said the injury was an accident and that two people from the camp have been arrested for throwing stones at police.
The issue of citizenship is crucial. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, the commission's secretary, said the government plans to eventually return Muslims deemed to be citizens to their original homes, if possible, but has yet to decide what to do with non-citizens.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the report "fails to address the need for accountability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that happened in last June and October."
Doubling the number of security forces "without first ensuring implementation of reforms to end those forces' impunity is a potential disaster," he added.
Robertson said family planning initiatives could be problematic if they are not implemented carefully.
"It's quite chilling to start talking about limiting births of one particular group," he said. "Will coercive measures get taken on the ground even if the union government says people can take this voluntarily?"
Last week, Human Rights Watch issued the most comprehensive and detailed account yet of what happened in Rakhine state last year. The report accused authorities — including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya.
Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon and Todd Pitman in Bangkok contributed to this report.