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 , 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.