The fresh violence in Arakan State will have serious implications for Burma and regional stability if it does not stop immediately. The international community must not remain passive in this regard or the country’s fragile democratic transition will face a grim setback.
However, if the current sectarian strife is really being pushed by hardliner factions in the political apparatus, as some insider sources believe, then we should not be surprised to see Burma’s recent political opening retreat.
On Thursday, the United Nations expressed concern through a statement. “The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped,” said a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“It is vital for the government and all concerned to prevent further violence and to defuse tensions between the two communities,” the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana said while presenting a report to the General Assembly in New York on Thursday.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan also voiced concern. “The situation is deteriorating and there is now a risk of a radicalization of the Rohingya. This would not be good for anyone,” he told The Bangkok Post.
“The conflict has been presented as an Islamic issue when it is not. It is a political, democratic, human rights and constitutional issue, and has direct implications on political reform and national reconciliation processes in Myanmar,” added Surin.
He also warned that the Arakan State violence would have wider strategic and security implications for the region. This is true and the unrest will certainly push refugees to flee across the border and so entail serious humanitarian and security implications for the future.
In August, Surin sent a letter to all Asean foreign ministers urging them to meet and address the Rohingya issue. This came in the wake of violence between the two communities in July. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong, the current Asean chair, called a meeting of the ministers. However, Burma refused to take part and said that the situation was under control. It is now hoped that the issue will be raised at the upcoming regional meeting in Cambodia.
Despite protestations to the contrary from Naypyidaw, it is obvious that the situation on the ground has escalated and the government has sent more troops to the region as a consequence.
Targeted attacks were not merely confined to the Rohingya, of whom around 800,000 are understood to live in northern Arakan State. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya community as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Many Burmese believe them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.
Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya advocacy group the Arakan Project, told a wire news agency at the weekend, “It’s not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it’s anti-Muslim.” Members of the Kaman minority, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who live in Kyaukpyu Town, have also been forced flee the violence.
These fresh clashes erupted after the Burmese government blocked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from opening an aid office to assist displaced Rohingya after the June violence.
Undoubtedly, the government has been slow to react to the ongoing crisis while the President’s Office has sent mixed signals to the domestic and international community. Buddhist monks and ethnic Arakanese have in general strongly objected to the OIC opening an office in Burma. Peaceful protests against the OIC were held in cities across the country prior to the latest violence.
Many Burmese monks and ordinary Buddhists believe that allowing an OIC operation would only radicalize the Rohingya population and aid the dissemination of Islam in the country. The strength of these concerns should not be treated lightly.
In July, Thein Sein told UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, “Burma will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Burma.”
Then again in August, Thein Sein told Voice of America that his government would open schools to improve the education of minority Rohingya Muslims who claim they are being persecuted by the majority Buddhist state.
Critics then argued that since the outbreak of violence in Arakan State there has been no transparency and accountability regarding the fate of victims as well as those instigating the violence. Informed sources revealed that if a hardliner faction in the establishment is behind things, they must have been working to instigate the violence for several months. If so, they have succeeded in seriously damaging the country.
The opposition, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and other prominent figures, has hopelessly failed to intervene or calm the situation. Many, especially in the international community and human rights organizations, were disheartened to see such inaction from those who still claim to represent the democracy movement.
Interestingly, government officials have once again promised to take action against the instigators. A spokesman for the President’s Office has also said that the government is looking to prosecute those responsible.
But where are they? And who are they?
Minister for Border Affairs Lt-Gen Thein Htay said, “At a time when the government is embarking on economic reforms to invite foreign investments and create jobs for people, instability like this has a certain impact on efforts of the state.”
Indeed, there are several theories. One suggests that hardliner factions in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party were behind the violence in order to undermine the president’s reform process.
A second theory is that the strife was intended to allow the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, to return to the spotlight. In the past, the former junta launched several military campaigns against the Rohingya—and every time the Burmese people rallied behind the military.
Burmese feudal kings have always played a key role in protecting Buddhism in the country. Therefore, the current military generals have always played the Muslim or Rohingya card to win the hearts and minds of the population.
Nevertheless, there are other players to consider. They are Rohingya sympathizers—some radical elements both in and outside the country as well as campaign groups who want to simplify the issue into black and white terms.
We must put things into perspective—to listen to voices of the Arakanese as well as the Rohingya. These two communities must learn to co-exist together in peace.
The current violence is not surprising as ordinary Arakanese and Burmese and those in the armed forces have long believed that Burma’s western frontier is breaking down. Many Arakanese claim that they have always protected their homeland to deter an influx of Muslims from neighboring countries.
If Burma wants to achieve genuine national reconciliation, we must embrace full integration and recognition of minorities. Burma’s ethnic groups, including the Arakanese, have been treated poorly under the previous and current regimes.
On the issue of the Rohingya—who many Burmese believe are illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh—one must also take into account the attitude of Burma’s military leaders.
Burma scholar Professor David Steinberg wrote in his book “Burma/Myanmar: what everyone needs to know” that Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who retired from public life last year, believes that the most dangerous Burmese frontier region is that shared with Bangladesh—not the area by China as many previously thought.
If he believed as much, then numerous senior military leaders, possibly including Thein Sein, will no doubt share a similar attitude. Whoever was behind this latest violence, sadly these days many ordinary Burmese see eye-to-eye with the former junta chief.