In Burma, Another Round of Ethnic Unrest Threatens Fragile Reforms

Over the past few days, violence between the Arakanese (or Rakhine) and Rohingya communities erupted again in the country’s far west, leaving at least 56 dead, according to an Arakan state official’s estimate.

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Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

A woman stands by her brother, who was injured during the recent sectarian violence, at a hospital in Kyuktaw township, Oct. 25, 2012.

These days, flights to Burma are filled with wide-eyed tourists and foreign investors keen to profit from a hot new frontier market. But one notable exception to this year’s promising Burmese narrative is the ethnic violence that is one of the most intractable problems facing the country’s young hybrid civilian-military government. Over the past few days, violence between the Arakanese (or Rakhine) and Rohingya communities erupted again in the country’s far west, leaving at least 56 dead, according to an Arakan state official’s estimate. (State media on Friday put the death toll at 12.) In June, scores were killed and more than 70,000, mostly Rohingya, were left homeless in another bloody spasm in Arakan state. Many remain without shelter today, living in the most basic of refugee camps.

The bloodshed has polarized Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar. Some people from Burma’s ethnic Bamar (or Burman) nationality, which shares a Buddhist faith with the Arakanese, accuse the Muslim Rohingya of being recent illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh. They contend that the Rohingya, most of whom do not have Burmese citizenship, should be deported. The Bangladeshi government also refuses most members of the 800,000-strong community citizenship. When I was in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state earlier this year, Arakanese told me they felt that the Rohingya were waging a kind of fertility war by procreating more prolifically than the local Buddhist population.

The Rohingya counter that most of their population has lived in Arakan for generations and that they were unfairly stripped of their citizenship by a controversial 1982 law passed by the country’s long-running military regime.  During their nearly half a century in power, the generals that ruled Burma until last year were particularly repressive toward the at least one-third of the nation that is composed of ethnic minorities. Both the Rohingya and the Arakanese were marginalized by the Bamar junta. But the United Nations has labeled the Rohingya one of the world’s most oppressed minorities. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Arakan on crowded boats to eke out precarious lives as undocumented workers elsewhere in Asia.

(MORE: Treatment of Muslim Rohingya Minority Shows Burma Has a Long Way to Go)

President Thein Sein, a retired general who has introduced a series of reforms in one of the world’s most closed societies, has stated that the Rohingya are not Burmese nationals. Earlier this month, the Burmese President prevented the Organization of the Islamic Conference from opening up offices in Burma, after Buddhist clerics protested the Muslim body’s proposed entry into the country. Even Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has tended to shy away publicly from the ethnic issue, although while on a trip to the U.S. last month she did address the fragile state of Burmese ethnic unity: “We have to learn to live together as a union. We had great hopes that our diversity would be our strength. Those hopes have not been realized. We owe it to the world, to all those who have supported us, to make that change.”

The latest violence struck at least four townships in Arakan. Unconfirmed pictures of flames engulfing the Muslim section of Kyaukphyu town circulated on Facebook, which is very popular among Burma’s small wired population. Kyaukphyu, on an island off the Arakan coast, is the starting point of the controversial Shwe energy pipeline project that will feed China. The project has angered Arakan locals because much of the state is without electricity, even though rich natural-gas reserves are located just offshore. A special economic zone is being planned for Kyaukphyu, which will include a deep-sea port for ships from the Middle East to disgorge oil and send it by land to China, thereby allowing Beijing to avoid the pirate-plagued Malacca Strait. Last week, local authorities announced that they would be opening tenders for foreign investors to bid on future Kyaukphyu projects. Much of current overseas investment in the area comes from South Korea, China and India.

On social media, both the Arakanese and Rohingya have claimed fatalities from the latest violence. The Associated Press, which had a photographer in Arakan, reported that one local hospital was filled with only Arakanese victims. But the wire service cautioned that might have been because the Rohingya were too frightened to visit a government-run institution. An official in the Burmese President’s office contends that intervention by Burmese military forces prevented the bloodshed from escalating further.

(PHOTOS: Portraits of Burmese Dissidents and Activists)

On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland weighed in on the chaos: “We join the international community and call on authorities within the country, including the government, civil and religious leaders, to take immediate action to halt the ongoing violence, to grant full humanitarian access to the affected areas, and to begin a dialogue towards a peaceful resolution, ensuring expeditious and transparent investigations into these and previous incidents.”

Hours earlier, hundreds of Burmese, led by Buddhist monks, rallied in Burma’s largest city Rangoon, calling for an end to the violence. Some of the protesters put all the blame for the carnage on the Rohingya. A day earlier in Arakan’s capital Sittwe, a gathering of Arakanese university students labeled the Rohingya “terrorists” and demanded they leave the state. As the inflammatory speech blazed, Arakan was still on fire.

14 comments
MuhammadKhizirFarooqi
MuhammadKhizirFarooqi

@abu.ibn.lahab @RafaSantos  It should be made clear to all that Islam STRICTLY  PROHIBIT to kill any innocent man. Even one can not kill himself. The one who do, is destined to remain in HELL for ever. Then how a Suicide bombing be an act of ISLAM. All over the world criminals are found belonging to any religion but for that reason you can not accused the whole nation or that particular religion to which the criminal belongs. 

Jamil71
Jamil71

It was the 1784 military conquest by Bodawpaya, the king ofBurma (now Myanmar), that transformed this once vibrant kingdom into anoppressed peripheral region. After this, many haunting tales began to circulateof Burmese soldiers rounding up the Rohingya in bamboo enclosures to burn themalive, and marching thousands to the city of Amarapura to work, effectivley asslave labour, on infrastructure projects. Before that it was anindependent stat named ”ARAKAN” where some of area under Bangladesh whichcouldn’t occupied by Burma kind in 1784. That means present Burma wereillegally occupied a free state.The Rohingya, whom the BBC calls "one of the world'smost persecuted minority groups", are the little-publicised and largelyforgotten Muslim people of the coastal Rakhine state of western Myanmar. Overthe past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically driven out oftheir homeland by Myanmar's military junta and subjected to widespread violenceand the total negation of their rights and citizenship within Myanmar. They area stateless Muslim minority.While many ethnic minorities in Myanmar have been thevictims of the central government's oppressive measures, the Rohingya standapart in that their very existence is threatened.With the rise to power of the military junta in 1962 underGeneral Ne Win, a policy of "Myanmarisation" was implemented as anultra-nationalist ideology based on the racial purity of the Myanma ethnicityand its Buddhist faith. The Rohingya, as both Muslims and non-Myanma, werestripped of their legitimacy and officially declared foreigners in their ownnative land. With the passage of the junta's 1982 Citizenship Law, theyeffectively ceased to exist legally.

DarkMatter
DarkMatter

I would like to ask the author if she has been to the alleged site of conflict? Who's the real culprit? The state has been named Rakkhine after the Arakanese people who lives there. Illegal immigration is the issue that Myanmar has been trying to sort out on these states neighouring with Bangladesh for decades. If you want to compare the situation, it is similar to America stopping Mexicans from entering America.

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

Burma’s government is violating the religious rights of Christians also. Christians among the Chin ethnic group in western Burma are facing religious persecution as they are coerced into converting to Buddhism as part of a government drive to “Burmanize” the population.Ethnic Chin are facing forced labor, torture, and “other cruel and inhuman treatment” which have forced thousands to flee their homeland, the Thailand-based Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said in a report which drew on more than 100 interviews over the past two years.

MuhammadKhizirFarooqi
MuhammadKhizirFarooqi like.author.displayName 1 Like

Burma is much larger state than Bangladesh. Burma is dominated by Buddhist and they are well placed in society than Arakanease called Rohingya. It is strange that the Rohingyans inhabited in Burma since ages are being expelled from there home land declaring them foreigners and not giving them Nationality of Burma. It is furthermore astonishing that the Buddhist who believe in nonviolence are killing Rohingyans Muslim. What a shame for Burmese in this civilized world..

kandw101
kandw101

You can hope, wish and pray for this kind of brutality to end if you want to. Not gonna work, this kind of destructive mentality has been going on in the 4th world for centuries with no end in sight. We would like to think the world is civilized, but hey, it isn't!!  IMO  

NeilHar44825463
NeilHar44825463

Burma is ruled by military government backed by China and Russia. China is the biggest consumer of Burma's rich resources who doesn't want any reformation in Burma. A couple of year since, Burma is reforming but military still play the major role in the process. Even President Thein Sein was a general. Burmese military government has the long history of abusing minorities. Not only Rohingya, but ethnic Christian minority in Kachin, Kayin are also the victims of atrocities committed by military government. War still going on in Kachin State in the northern part of  Burma. Rakhine is the only ethnic entity who didn't engage any war activities with central Burmese government. Part of the reason is the existence of Rohingya Muslim behind their back. Even though the richness of natural resources in Rakhine state and coastal areas, Rakhine is the second most undeveloped region in the country. Democratic icon Aung San Su Kyi remians silence on those human right violations partly because she will lose the support from majority Buddhist in upcoming election. There still are the military hardliners who want to go back to military era which ensure their prosperity.

shenzhou
shenzhou like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bangladeshi government should accept back their people the Rohingyas with open arms. Burma is not a big country, they can't afford to carve out a part of their land for the Bangladeshis aka Rohingyas.

nabil
nabil like.author.displayName 1 Like

@shenzhou  

In comparision to Bangladesh, Burma is a very large country. There are thousands of Rakhaine  also living in Bangladesh and Bangladesh is not pushing them to Arakan. If they are the citizen of Bangladesh, then why Rohingyas case will be different?

Arakanese

abu.ibn.lahab
abu.ibn.lahab

@nabill

Please provide citation on where you got the information that "thousands" of Rakhines living in Bangladesh. Peaceful Muslims of Bangladesh recently burned Buddhist temples and neighborhoods, but the violence is one sided because the dhimmis dare not retaliate. The story in Burma is different with both sides inflicting damage. 

RafaSantos
RafaSantos

@abu.ibn.lahab @nabil "the dhimmis dare not retaliate" -> Which is entirely they're own fault. The Rohingyas shouldn't be shamed for daring stand up for themselves against Buddhist rapists and slave owners. And by the way, that incident in Bangladesh, I've heard it is Rohingya refugees who were behind them. They don't like Buddhists, but I can't say this isn't for a reason.

Floridian
Floridian

Someone need to stop this. :(