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.