o te la fan?
The communal bloodshed in Myanmar’s Rakhine State represents both a consequence of, and threat to, Myanmar’s current political transition. While communal tensions and discrimination against Myanmar’s Muslim minority long predate the country’s recent opening up, the loosening of authoritarian constraints may well have enabled this current crisis to take on a virulent intensity. Equally, failure to both halt the crisis and address its underlying causes risks halting or even eroding Myanmar’s current reform initiatives.
Unless the government takes steps not just to end the violence but also lay the groundwork for protection of minority communities there is a risk of the violence spreading. How the government handles this case will be a major test of the police and courts in a country that has just begun to emerge from an authoritarian past. It will also test the government’s will and capacity to reverse a longstanding policy of discrimination toward the Muslim Rohingya.
The rape and murder of a 27-year-old seamstress Ma Thida Htwe on 28 May 2012 has led long simmering tensions to erupt into violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Media reports said police the next day detained three Muslim suspects. One day later, crowds of Buddhists besieged the local police station demanding that the suspects, who had already been transferred to prison, be handed over. On 3 June, after the reported distribution of inflammatory leaflets against Muslims, a Yangon-bound bus was stopped by a crowd of some 300 people in Toungup township, and ten Muslim passengers were taken off and beaten to death. One Buddhist, said to be mistaken for Muslim, was also murdered.
Fearing escalation, the national government on 6 June announced the establishment of an investigation committee to look into the “organised lawless and anarchic acts” that it said could “harm peace, stability and rule of law in Rakhine State” and which would report directly to President Thein Sein by 30 June. The publication of the list of team members and their mandate was unusual in its transparency and demonstrated how the government is breaking with the secretive practices of the authoritarian past. It presumably signalled the intention to prevent a cover-up of these incidents and to punish those responsible – particularly significant given the history of state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims.
On the ground, the announcement of the inquiry did not stem the violence as angry mobs from both communities went on the rampage. Official media reported on 7 June alone that at least seven people were killed, seventeen injured and more than 500 houses and other buildings destroyed as the two communities turned on each other. While government censorship stopped some early reporting of the incidents, fresh but unconfirmed incidents, including gruesome pictures and virulent racial slurs, have spread widely via the internet.
In response to the violence, the government on 10 June declared a state of emergency in Rakhine State until further notice and the military was deployed, effectively implementing martial law in the affected areas. The same day, President Thein Sein told the nation in a broadcast on state radio and television that he had not intentionally kept news of the violence from the nation but he had not expected the situation to have deteriorated so rapidly. He described the violence in grave terms, warning that the situation could extend beyond the one state and this could damage stability, democratization and development during the ongoing transition. He called on community leaders, religious organisations, politicians, and all citizens to work with the government to encourage calm and prevent the spread of unrest.
The Rohingya Muslims have long been subject to severe institutionalised discrimination from the local Buddhist Rakhine population and the government. They are mostly denied citizenship, despite having lived in the area for generations, and require official permission to travel beyond their villages, restricting their ability to work, study or receive health services. They also suffer from various discriminatory decrees and practices, including marriage restrictions, arbitrary taxation and forced labour. This treatment has led in the past to several incidents of mass exodus of refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh and the formation of several small armed insurgent groups. After elections in November 2010, a few Rohingya and other Muslim representatives were able to at least raise the plight of the population in regional legislatures but without any significant impact.
The deep resentment against Muslims by Buddhists can be traced back to the colonial period, when there was significant immigration of Muslims and other faiths from British India to Burma, either of privileged minor officials, as part of a commercial class, or those brought in as indentured labourers. Since independence, the rights of citizenship of those of Bengali origin, sometimes known as Rohingya, have been mostly denied, although the Muslim community inside the country has diverse and mixed origins.
While ethnic tensions have been manipulated by state agencies in the past, the origins of some recent attacks are harder to determine. It is not uncommon that when an authoritarian state loosens its grip, old angers flare up and spread fast. Some reports say that monks have led recent attacks on a mosque in Kachin state or that rival commercial interests are behind attacks on Muslim businesses. Last September, restrictions on the Internet were lifted and inflammatory rhetoric online has also been ascribed by some as a factor behind rising tension. The very low levels of Internet penetration in Myanmar make it unlikely that this online racist rhetoric has been driving the spread of the violence. But the disturbing views posted widely online are reflective of the view of people on the ground.
The worry about a demonisation of any so-called “outsiders” or those of other faiths in Myanmar is that the Buddhist-majority country is home to many indigenous and migrant ethnic communities, including those of Chinese and Indian descent, and minority religious communities, many of whom have lived in the country for generations. These communities are often concentrated in particular areas, professions, or businesses, and may be seen as benefiting disproportionately as the economy opens up and grows.
In responding to this crisis, the government needs to take on board the following considerations:
Most observers believe Myanmar’s democratic reforms cannot be easily reversed. But it is precisely this kind of situation – an eruption of violence that causes martial law to be imposed, albeit in a limited area – that could pose a threat to the country’s transition. The challenge is not just to restore order, but to build better ethnic relations in the process.