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Thein Sein faces ethnic cleansing charge, accepts peace prize on same day

Tonight, at a black-tie gala in New York, the International Crisis Group is scheduled to honor Thein Sein, Burma's president, with its top peace award. Since he initiated the country's political and economic liberalization two years ago, Thein Sein has been remarkably successful at winning over the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for example, has praised the former general's "vision, leadership, and courage to put Myanmar on the path to change." President Barack Obama, meanwhile, told reporters during a historic visit to Burma last year: "I shared with President Thein Sein our belief that the process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward." (Here at Foreign Policy, we even made him our top Global Thinker of 2012 along with Aung San Suu Kyi)

But like Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and Gamal Mubarak before him, Thein Sein may not live up to the reformist ambitions attributed to him by his Western admirers. The first inklings that something might be amiss came in June 2011, when the former general launched an offensive against the Kachin rebels in northern Burma, forcing as many as 100,000 people to flee their homes. Then came his regrettable proposal for resolving ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims, many of whom settled in Burma in the 15th century, and other ethnic groups in the country: resettlement to a third country or, as the Diplomat put it, the "mass deportation of an unwanted ethnic minority."

Now, a new report by Human Rights Watch accuses Burma's government of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of 125,000 Rohingya Muslims in the country's southwest. From the report:

Human Rights Watch research found that during the period following the violence and abuses in June [2012], some security forces in Arakan State -- rather than responding to the growing campaign to force Rohingya out -- were destroying mosques, effectively blocking humanitarian aid to Rohingya populations, conducting violent mass arrests, and at times acting alongside Arakanese to forcibly displace Muslims.

In response, according to Human Rights Watch, Thein Sein issued a critical report on Arakan State forces to parliament, established a commission to "reveal the truth behind the unrest" and "find solutions for communities with different religious beliefs to live together in harmony," and organized a follow-up workshop a few months later -- efforts that Human Rights Watch calls "patently insufficient to stop the visible and mounting pressure in Arakan State to drive Rohingya and other Muslims out of the country."

Something tells me tonight's gala is going to be a little awkward.

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Has the world stopped caring about massacres in Syria?

On May 25, 2012, 108 people were murdered in the Syrian town of Houla. Gruesome videos of woman and children slaughtered in their homes spread like wildfire across the Internet, the United Nations issued a report that attempted to discern exactly what happened, and the United States expelled Syria's top diplomat in Washington.

Fast-forward 11 months: The Syrian military has reportedly launched an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz -- part of a broader effort to secure the capital from rebel assault -- and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria are reporting that more than 400 people have been massacred. Other opposition networks cite a lower death toll, but still point to a significant loss of life: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for instance, is reporting that 101 people have been documented killed, but that the final death toll could exceed 250 Syrians.

The two events may be equally horrifying, but there are few similarities in the international response to them. The coverage of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz has been limited to a few newspaper articles -- top U.S. officials have not felt compelled to respond, and the United Nations has not sprung into action.

Part of the reason for the lack of an international response this time around is the absence of any information coming from the Damascus suburbs. Even though Jdeidet al-Artouz is only about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, the Syrian military has locked down the area -- no journalists or NGOs have been able to get close enough to report on what is going on. The lockdown is also preventing information from getting out of the towns, which explains the murkiness about the casualty figures. Even so, a few videos have leaked out, purporting to show dead men, women, and children.

But it's hard to avoid another conclusion: The international community is simply growing desensitized to reports of massacres in Syria. At the time of the Houla massacre, the conflict had killed an estimated 10,000 Syrians -- 11 months later, the United Nations estimates the death toll at more than 70,000 people. In the face of such unrelenting violence, the world simply looks away.

 

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