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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 3, 2012


Ethnic violence imperils Myanmar reform
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Renewed violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine State threatens to spread across the country as rising sentiment against ethnic Rohingyas becomes more generally anti-Muslim. Surging Buddhist versus Muslim violence underscores the urgent need for reforms related to ethnic minorities and the rule of law, issues that were neglected or exploited for political gain during the era of direct military rule.

On October 21, new rounds of violence erupted in Minbya and Mrauk-U townships in Rakhine State. The disturbances quickly spread to Myebon, Rathedaung, Pauktaw, Kyauktaw, Kyaukpyu and Ramree, the first time sectarian violence had hit most of those areas. After a week of mostly Buddhist on Muslim attacks, the unrest was suppressed after security forces were reinforced.

Government reports claimed that 84 people were killed with

 

another 129 hospitalized in the melees. Melees between stick and knife wielding groups of Rakhines and Rohingyas running riot or forcefully defending their homes characterized the violence. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups estimated the true death toll could be much higher, based on the testimony of survivors and the government's propensity to understate casualty figures that could put it in a negative light.

Violence first flared between the groups in June after several Rohingya men were accused of raping a local Rakhine woman. Riots and reprisal attacks continued into July, resulting in the deaths of at least 90 people and the destruction of thousands of homes. Although the violence was eventually suppressed, some 75,000 Muslims are still displaced in camps in Sittwe and Kyauktaw townships.

The violence achieved a de facto segregation of the Buddhist and Muslim populations in these townships, especially in Sittwe, where most of the Muslim population of the once evenly divided city now live on its outskirts in an estimated 15 camps. Tensions have long simmered between minority ethnic Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.

The Rakhine are a minority in Myanmar but the majority in Rakhine State, where there are also an estimated 800,000 Rohingyas. Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with an estimated 4% of the population following Islam.

A report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released on October 28 claimed that at least 28,000 mainly Muslims have been displaced by the recent violence. In the latest surge of violence, Myanmar's government said over 4,600 homes were destroyed, as well as at least 14 religious buildings. Human Rights Watch documented through satellite imagery the destruction of 811 structures in a predominantly Muslim section in the town of Kyaukpyu alone.

Although the violence has since subsided, anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment is rising dangerously across the country. Buddhist monks of the All-Arakanese Monk's Solidarity Conference in Rakhine State recently called for Muslim sympathizers to be exposed and targeted. This call has heightened a state of fear in the region that has prevented Rakhine Buddhists from aiding Muslims or helping aid providers.

In its report, UNOCHA noted that this feeling has been extended to UN and other relief organizations, many of which have been accused by majority Buddhist Burmans and others of exhibiting a bias that favors Rohingyas over Rakhines. The report claims that independent assessment teams and relief supplies, including from the government, have been blocked by presumed local Rakhines from affected areas.

Volatile mix
Issues of ethnic and religious identity are closely intertwined in Myanmar, especially for Muslims of South Asian descent. They are often lumped together by other ethnicities as "Muslims", or more pejoratively as kala. This has created a situation where disaffection against Muslim Rohingya has sometimes sparked more general anti-Muslim and anti-South Asian sentiments that have affected areas of the country where there are small but noticeable Muslim communities, especially in the major trading towns and cities.

Anti-Muslim sentiment was strategically tapped by the previous military government in 2001 to deflect attention from wider political and economic problems. In addition to disturbances in Rakhine State between February and October of that year, anti-Muslim rioters destroyed mosques, shops and homes in towns elsewhere in the country as widespread as Taungoo, Pyi, Pakkoku, Pegu, and Henzada. At the time, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) attributed most of the violence to radical Buddhist monks.

These and other similar actions by the previous military regime have given rise to speculation, particularly in Myanmar exile communities, that the new violence may have been manufactured by a military "old guard" keen to destabilize the region and slow, or even reverse, the reform process. The theory speculates that elements in the military are unhappy with the reform process and are willing to use ethnic unrest in Rakhine State and elsewhere to maintain their relevance in Myanmar's politics.

Conspiracy theories aside, President Thein Sein's government does not appear to be behind the latest rounds of violence. The violence runs against the government's interests of fostering reform, rehabilitating the country's international image and building relations with ethnic minorities. The ethnic unrest also threatens to sour the environment for desperately needed new foreign investments, an area Thein Sein's government has prioritized.

Recent protests in Sittwe, Mandalay and Yangon against the establishment of an Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) humanitarian liaison office were nominally organized by Buddhist monks, youth groups and women's organizations. In response, Thein Sein suspended previous plans to open the OIC office in Sittwe in mid-October. During a visit by an OIC delegation to Rakhine State in September, the global organization announced its intention to support Rohingya Muslims fighting for their rights as citizens in Myanmar.

Several violent incidents have been recorded against Muslims in areas distant from western Rakhine State. Most recently, two mosques were targeted in grenade attacks in Kawkareik and Kyondoe towns in eastern Karen State. The attacks came two weeks after the so-called Group of Buddhist Religious Leaders to Protect and Maintain the Buddhist Heritage in Pa-an, the capital of Karen State, issued a statement seen by Asia Times Online that urged Buddhists to cut social and business dealings with Muslims. The statement threatened in bold letters that "serious actions will be taken" against anyone who violated the order.

Sectarian tensions have long simmered under the surface across the country. Prior to the violence in Rakhine State, the construction of a mosque was halted in April by Buddhist monks and local community members in Hpakant, Kachin State. Another mosque was destroyed in Magwe Division in April in a business dispute that tapped into anti-Muslim sentiment.

In Rakhine State, the violence has spread to encompass non-Rohingya Muslim communities. In Kyaukpyu, for instance, many of the homes documented as destroyed belonged to the Muslim Kaman ethnic minority, which unlike the Rohingya is recognized by the government. Successive governments have asserted that Rohingyas are illegal settlers from Bangladesh and denied them citizenship under the 1982 nationality law.

Thein Sein has publicly acknowledged on several occasions the potential for the violence to spread beyond Rakhine State and the dangers such instability would pose to his government's reform efforts. The sectarian strife in Rakhine State has already sparked criticism that his government has not done enough to protect both Muslim and Buddhist communities and has failed to address the root causes of the situation.

Marginalized minority
The Muslim issue, and especially that of the Rohingya, is possibly the most sensitive of the ethnic problems Thein Sein's government faces. While there have been widespread calls in parliament for solutions to ethnic issues and related insurgencies in Karen, Shan and Kachin States, the Muslim issue has been met with silence or barely veiled calls to send the Rohingya "back" to neighboring Bangladesh. Even President Thein Sein has at times called for segregation and even expulsion of Rohingyas.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been criticized for her stance on the issue. Much of the criticism has centered on her apparent unwillingness to leverage her considerable moral authority for a solution to the problem. Rather than call for reconciliation and an end to the discriminatory 1982 nationality law, she has focused mainly on the need for rule of law in Rakhine State, as she has for the rest of the country.

A parliamentary Rule of Law Committee, which Suu Kyi chairs, recently submitted an emergency proposal calling for increased security in Rakhine State and an investigation into human rights abuses, though it was couched more in terms of establishing transparent judicial procedures than addressing the root causes of the strife.

A report by an investigative commission set up by Thein Sein after the previous round of violence has been delayed due to the difficulty of obtaining reliable information from all sides. Originally due to be submitted to the president next month, it is now not expected to be completed any time soon. The commission has also so far failed to propose any policies or measures to address the root causes of the problem.

The government has also been accused of leaving many of the 75,000 displaced by the previous spasm of violence without access to adequate food, shelter, or medical care, in part due to Rakhine imposed restrictions on humanitarian access.

Military mindset
The problem has been compounded by local administrative and security bodies that, in addition to being largely subject to societal prejudices against Muslims, are reluctant to act without orders from central authorities. That reluctance to act is rooted in decades of unaccountable military rule.

In the immediate term, the government lacks effective mechanisms to contain civil and sectarian strife. On both recent occasions in Rakhine State, local security forces had to be reinforced by additional police and military units to restore order. During the latest round of violence, 5,000 police were deployed and the army's presence in the region was increased from 46 to 51 battalions.

Although the police force has in recent years undergone some reform, it remains mainly a paramilitary force with a largely negative public image. That's especially true for the riot police, who over the years have played prominent and often brutal roles in the crushing of pro-democracy protests.

Images of police patrols in Rakhine State during the recent unrest showed them armed with automatic rifles and looking more like military units than civil police. Like most militaries, Myanmar's army is not trained to control crowds or suppress riots in urban areas.

Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations documented the involvement of the military in killings, rapes and mass arrests during the June-July violence in Rakhine State. While details remain sketchy from last week's round of violence, there are initial credible reports of security forces firing on civilians, killing and injuring an unknown number.

These reports point to an urgent need for wide-reaching police and military reforms, particularly concerning their code of conduct in dealing with civil disturbances. Although the use of the military to quell civil unrest is allowed for in Chapter 11 of the constitution, the actual doctrine and commensurate training for carrying out these operations is sorely lacking.

The state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar said on October 29 that with the situation now stabilized, security forces will focus on relief and rehabilitation work for displaced victims. This is another role for which Myanmar's military is neither noted nor trained. Yet international attention will focus on its performance and whether earmarked aid is distributed equally among displaced Rohingyas and Rakhines.

The speed and scale of the recent sectarian violence has clearly outstripped government reformers' ability to deal with the situation. If Thein Sein hopes to maintain stability and cap anti-Muslim sentiment before it destabilizes his administration, he will need to quickly shift his reform focus from political and economic matters to judicial, administrative, and security issues. Achieving reconciliation between Buddhists and Muslims will be a more nettlesome task.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at bpmccartan1@gmail.com

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Myanmar conflict threatens regional stability (Aug 16, '12)

Fleeing Rohingyas driven from safety (Jun 16, '12)

 

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