Communal violence continues to erupt in bursts of bitterness and revenge in Western Myanmar. Since June, when a Rakhine Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Muslim men, over 180 people have been killed and more than 1,00,000 people displaced. In the last spate of attacks, in which Rohingya Muslims suffered the brunt of the violence, whole neighbourhoods were razed. While the security forces have made efforts to get the situation under control, a return to normalcy appears far away.
The violence was not completely unexpected. It emerged as a result of previous governments’ discriminatory policies, deep poverty, and the recent loosening of restrictions. The population of Rakhine state includes Rakhine Buddhists, who are ethnically linked to Burmans, and various Muslim communities. One of these is the Rohingya, who speak a dialect of Bengali and trace their residence in Myanmar to the colonial period and earlier. Numbering approximately 8,00,000 and concentrated along the Bangladesh border, the Rohingya have long been viewed by Rakhine Buddhists as a threat.
For years, Myanmar’s authoritarian leaders have fostered animosity towards the Rohingya in particular and unease about the intentions of Muslims in general. While the majority of the population was dissatisfied with military rule, they were receptive to claims that without the government’s efforts, the country could be overrun by such “outsiders”. The country’s majority Buddhists have held on to their religious identity as a source of strength and pride, and Buddhist monks and lay people alike were easily agitated by rumours of Muslims raping Buddhist women or purported plans to spread Islam.
Previous governments have attempted to uproot the Rohingya population through various means. The 1982 citizenship law did not recognise the Rohingya as an indigenous race and twice the military carried out operations to expel them. Hundreds of thousands fled but a large number were involuntarily repatriated, because the Bangladesh government did not want to accept them. The Rohingya must get approval from the authorities to marry, which can take more than two years and the payment of an exorbitant bribe. They have been subjected to routine forced labour, had their land confiscated, and are frequently denied permission to travel to schools, jobs or hospitals outside their villages.
Rakhine state is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and with political reform bringing the prospect of new economic opportunities, there is both hope and anxiety. Many Buddhist Rakhine see the situation as a zero sum game in which the Muslim population may be able to profit and expand at their expense. This could stem from the national mood of heightened anticipation mingled with apprehension, at a time when land grabbing increases, the courts continue to serve the interests of the executive branch and plans for massive infrastructure and commercial agriculture projects are laid.
This year, with the loosening of restrictions on the media and public gatherings, people have felt freer to voice their feelings in public and act on their emotions. While this is welcome, it has also unleashed hate speech and incendiary claims, which have stoked the violence.
In handling the crisis, President Thein Sein has struggled to find a response that could satisfy very different constituencies. His initial proposal to put the Rohingya in a refugee camp or send them to another country was applauded by many people in Myanmar, including those in the democracy movement. The United States, UN agencies and others reproached the government, calling for protection of the Rohingya population and the creation of a pathway to citizenship. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi talked about the rule of law and respect for human rights. However, in order to maintain a constructive working relationship with the Myanmar government and retain the support of the Buddhist population, she has remained largely disengaged from the situation.
The government has established segregated camps for the displaced, but international aid agencies have not been granted full access and conditions in Rohingya camps remain deplorable. Thein Sein recently gave the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation permission to set up an aid office in Rakhine state, but then suspended the plan after Buddhist monks and lay-people staged mass protest rallies. The spectre of ethnic cleansing and a spread of the violence to other parts of the country remains a serious concern.
In order to restore peace and enable the country to move forward, much needs to be done. First, all individuals in Arakan state need protection, regardless of their citizenship status. Second, poverty must be addressed. Third, economic reform must be accompanied by legal reform so that people can rely on an impartial system of justice. And finally, Myanmar’s most well-known leaders must jointly endorse a new narrative which recognises the contributions that all of Myanmar’s inhabitants can make to the country’s success. India, which has had its own challenges in forging a union of diverse peoples, has a useful role to play in all of this, by sharing its experiences and supporting inclusive development in Myanmar.
The writer is associate professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University