For much of the past five decades, Burma has been a byword for political repression. The generals that seized power in 1962 ruled with fearsome, often reckless, authority, stomping out dissent and turning one of Asia’s breadbaskets into a barren, hungry place. In the past two years, the story changed. The men in green handed power to a quasi-civilian government, promising to end the country’s isolation. In April, the world watched Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi lead the National League for Democracy to a near sweep in by-elections hailed as a landmark for the Southeast Asian nation. Suu Kyi, long incarcerated by the junta, was now a parliamentarian acceptable to the regime. The nation’s own reversal, it seemed, was only a matter of time.
But a recent spate of violence in the country’s northwest reminds us that Burma’s transition is far from complete. Even as the West relaxes sanctions and investors flock to Rangoon, swaths of the country seethe. Since June, clashes between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (also called Rakhine state) have left at least 78 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found government forces did little to quell the violence, leaving terrified villagers to defend themselves with sharpened sticks and homemade spears. Worse, police and paramilitary forces have since launched a crackdown on Rohingya, conducting violent sweeps, opening fire on villagers and arresting large numbers of Muslim men and boys.
(PHOTOS: Sectarian Unrest in Burma)
The uncomfortable truth is that in Arakan, at least, the new Burma looks a lot like the old. This patchwork nation is still split along sectarian lines, still divided by history, geography and language. Military men still hold key positions in government. And whereas reformers might have spoken out, many are staying silent, turning away as Arakan burns. Fact is, most of Burma’s people don’t see the Rohingya as part of the country’s ethnic fabric. Asked about the Rohingya, President Thein Sein, a former general, suggested refugee camps or mass expulsion as “solutions.” “The government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement accompanying the group’s 56-page report on the crisis. “But recent events in Arakan state demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist.”
The immediate cause of the unrest was the alleged May 28 rape and murder of an ethnic Arakan woman, allegedly at the hands of three Muslim men. Word of the killing spread quickly, hastened by pamphlets steeped in anti-Muslim propaganda. On June 3, Arakan villagers in a neighboring township stopped a bus and murdered 10 Muslims onboard. Within the week, riots broke out in at least two cities to the north, Human Rights Watch found, escalating an ongoing cycle of mob violence. In the regional capital, Sittwe, most of the Rohingya are gone. The Muslim quarter sits shuttered. “It’s like looking at the aftermath of a natural disaster,” an unnamed Channel 4 News correspondent said, surveying the damage in a dispatch from the city. “Except human beings did this.”
In many ways, the conflict has been brewing for years. The Arakanese and the Rohingya live, literally and figuratively, at Burma’s periphery. The coastal state, which traces the Bay of Bengal to the Bangladesh border, is separated from the rest of the country by mountains. It is poor, even by Burma’s standards, and most of its residents are minorities in a country dominated by the ethnic Burmese of the heartland to the east. Like the Rohingya, and indeed most of Burma’s minorities, the Arakanese suffered immensely under military rule. Unlike the Rohingya, they are citizens. If there is common ground to be found between Naypyidaw and Arakan, it is the belief that Rohingya don’t belong in Burma.
The Rohingya are among the most isolated and oppressed people in the world. The end of British colonial rule left them stateless, sandwiched between present-day Burma and Bangladesh. Though many trace their Bay of Bengal roots back centuries, the Burmese government insists they are illegal South Asian migrants, relics of colonial times. They have never been recognized as one of Burma’s 135 indigenous races and have routinely been denied the right to travel, marry or work. The ruling junta played on nativist sentiment, stoking racial hatred. A Burmese diplomat once called them “ugly ogres.” Many still see them as outsiders bent on stealing Buddhist lands.
The suspicion is such that even Burmese activists seem afraid, or unwilling, to speak out. Suu Kyi, the symbolic heart of the country’s opposition, has been accused of dodging questions on the matter. While touring Europe in June, she responded to a query about the crisis by saying, obliquely, that she does not know if the Rohingya are Burmese. Absent opposition from inside Burma, Muslim groups from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey have rallied behind the Rohingya cause. The Burmese government last week agreed to aid from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but maintains that the conflict is nonsectarian. In a way, of course, it’s right: this is, at its heart, a matter of basic rights and government accountability. On both counts, the new Burma has far to go.