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Target aid to end Myanmar's ethnic violence

To succeed in ending the conflict, outside powers must put people's interest before their own

Over the past year, enthusiasm for Myanmar's democratisation process has gone from cautious optimism to genuine concern. This week, concern turned to horror.

In a report released yesterday, Human Rights Watch accused the government of being complicit in crimes against Muslims in the state of Rakhine. According to the study, community leaders and Buddhist monks are engaging in "coordinated attacks" on Muslims, backed by state security forces. Meanwhile, a video obtained by the BBC showed Burmese officers standing by while a Buddhist mob destroys a Muslim gold shop and sets fire to houses.

The video was reportedly filmed last month in the central city of Meiktila. Dozens of Muslims were killed in the violence.

Attacks against minorities - Rohingya Muslims and other groups in Myanmar - have been spiralling across the country since March last year. And yet, there has been remarkably little condemnation from outside powers; US President Barack Obama visited the country in November, his first visit overseas since re-election, and praised the country's reforms while failing to condemn the ethnic attacks.

Cynics always warned that while the swift transition from a military junta to democratic state was remarkable, it would take more than promises to move a long-cloistered military state into the global fold. Now it seems those warnings were prescient. With luck the recent focus, from videos to watchdog reports, will shed light on one of the world's worst examples of ethnic carnage.

Again there is reason to be pessimistic. Observers often blame business and political interests for the failings of western countries to publicly criticise Myanmar's violence; indeed, natural resource exploitation is a principal reason for the global interest in the country.

But the situation in Myanmar does not bode well for a country that respects human dignity and modern values. Widespread instability would not help foreign investment, which is why continuing communal tensions must not be tolerated and authorities have to assume more responsibility to end the violence.

Outside investment and allocation of aid can be targeted in ways that could help reduce the bloodshed. Vetting aid recipients, assisting with political and security sector reforms, and encouraging national dialogue can all help Myanmar escape this cycle of violence.

It is not too late to avert disaster. But to succeed countries partnering with Myanmar must put that country's long-term interests ahead of their own.

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