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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 15, 2012

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Violent test for Myanmar reform
By Brian McCartan

Sectarian strife gripping Rakhine State offers a distinct test for Myanmar's quasi-civilian government. President Thein Sein's efforts to calm the situation have won some praise, but there are calls to do more. The real test will be whether his government can ensure long-term stability while continuing a reform drive that is removing controls that served to suppress past communal tensions.

Hundreds of Muslims are reported to be fleeing Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, which has has reinforced its land border, and with coast guards watching the River Naf, used by fleeing Rohingyas using small boats desperate to seek safety, CNN and other media reported. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on Wednesday said her country was not willing to give shelter to Rohingya refugees, CNN reported.

Before the recent killings and arson attacks, tensions had been


building between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities. The inciting incident for the violence was the rape and murder of Ma Thida Htwe, a 27-year-old Buddhist Rakhine woman on May 28 in Taunggote township.

Soon afterwards, three Muslim men were arrested for the crime, even as pamphlets began circulating in the region blaming Muslims for the incident. On June 3, 10 Muslim pilgrims were taken off a Yangon-bound bus and beaten to death by a several hundred-strong mob of Rakhine Buddhists. The mob claimed they were looking for the woman's killers.

In the aftermath, violence in the Muslim-majority western portion of the state spiraled, with mobs of Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine clashing in villages and towns. State media appealed early for calm while the government investigated. In a turn, civil society organizations appealed to the government to step in, show responsibility, and bring stability to the region.

As violence spread to other townships and the state capital at Sittwe, a dusk-to-dawn curfew was declared in four Rakhine State townships and additional police and troops were called in to contain the violence. Media reports indicate security forces had to resort at times to firing in the air to disperse rioters. However, violence continued, with fearful villagers and townspeople arming themselves with knives, swords and sharpened bamboo poles to protect their homes.

As the situation grew more unstable, thousands fled to internal refugee camps in Maungdaw and Sittwe. The United Nations has temporarily relocated non-essential staff from the region, and state media reports indicate that air travel and shipping to the region have been suspended.

At least 21 people have been killed, as many seriously injured and more than 1,600 houses burned in the violence, according to government media outlets. Both Rakhine and Rohingya activists claim many more have been murdered, but reports are almost impossible to verify given the highly charged nature of the violence.

Beyond beefing up the region's security presence, Thein Sein has taken other steps to deal with the violence that some feel have bolstered and others feel have undermined his reform credentials. A committee was formed on June 7 under Deputy Home Affairs Minister Kyaw Zan Myint to look into the deaths of the 10 Muslims and report back to the president by June 30.

On June 10, Thein Sein made a nationally televised speech announcing a state of emergency in Rakhine State, the first time such a rights-curbing measure has been invoked since his elected government took power last year. Significantly, the move allows for the military to take over the administrative functions in the state.

In his speech, Thein Sein called on the people, political parties, religious leaders and the media to assist the government with restoring peace and stability to the region. He went on to warn of the negative effects violence based on hatred and revenge could have on the stability and development of the country as a whole.

Military control
The state of emergency has been greeted with some trepidation given the country's very recent move away from military rule. Human rights and civil society groups worry that, under the military's leadership, security forces may resort to the heavy-handed tactics they have used in the past to break up protests and round up opposition figures, including firing into crowds and arbitrary arrests.

At the same time, if the military can manage to quell the violence without undue force and return administration to the state government in a timely manner, it could demonstrate the military's commitment to backing Thein Sein's reform efforts.

The situation has placed popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a difficult position. The Muslim issue, particularly the Rohingya, is a divisive issue in Myanmar, where anti-Muslim sentiment often runs high.

Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has often deliberately attempted to avoid involvement in Muslim-related issues. However, as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights and democracy advocate, Suu Kyi has been forced to wade into the issue.

In a statement on June 6 calling for calm and understanding, Suu Kyi alluded to the difficulty in discussing the Muslim issue by saying, "Maybe some people wouldn't like me saying this but I have to say what I must say regardless of whether they like it or not. When you are the majority in society, then you are the strong party. If you are strong, then you must be generous and sympathetic. I would like to see all people in Burma [Myanmar] get along with each other regardless of their religion and ethnicity."

Suu Kyi left this week on her first trip to Europe in 24 years, arriving in Geneva on Wednesday on the fist leg of her tour, during which she will formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.

Myanmar's has been home to Muslims for centuries, most originally hailing from South Asia. Under British colonial rule, the population increased as Indians were brought in to work in the bureaucracy and military while others arrived seeking business opportunities. Many others worked as indentured laborers.

Many of these Indians were Muslims and to many people in Myanmar the two terms have become almost synonymous when talking about the country's Indian-descended population. Today, most Muslims in the country can point to several generations of ancestors resident in Myanmar, speak Myanmarese , and have adopted many of the country's customs, yet they have not been accepted by the majority of the population.

Many Myanmarese maintain social and commercial ties with Muslims, popular attitudes based on negative racial and religious stereotypes abound. These stereotypes and a general belief that Muslims are illegal economic migrants were actively reinforced by the military regime that took power in 1962.

During a pogrom against people of both Indian and Chinese descent in 1962, thousands were forced to flee the country. This history has created an environment where negative ethnic-based sentiments often easily rise to the surface, as seen in Rakhine State over the past week. The Muslim population has become a convenient scapegoat for problems in the country and over the years a useful way for the government to let off pressure caused by its own economic and political mismanagement.

Over 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 1978 and over 250,000 again fled in 1991-92. Although many returned under a program organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 30,000 still reside in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. 

Continued 1 2  

Myanmar's military reform gap
(Jun 12, '12)

Failed path to peace in Myanmar
(Jun 1, '12)

New rights, old wrongs in Myanmar
(May 26, '12)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 13, 2012)

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