An eruption of communal violence in Burma this past week is a reminder that the Southeast Asian country still faces serious problems even as it institutes major political and economic reforms after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
In a question and answer format, here is what the unrest is about:
Question: Who are the parties involved in this past week’s communal violence in Burma?
Answer: The two main groups in the western state of Arakan (Rakhine), the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya, have been clashing with each other, with Burmese security forces trying to restore order.
Many in Burma, especially among the Arakanese and the majority Burmans, deny that the Rohingya represent a distinct group, insisting they are simply Bengalis whose proper home is in neighboring Bangladesh. Burma deprives most Rohingyas of citizenship, largely curtailing their civil rights. Bangladesh likewise doesn’t accept them, keeping large numbers in refugee camps.
Q: What is the scale of the current violence?
A: Myanmar state television reported on Friday night that 67 people had died, 95 were injured and 2,818 houses were burned down from Sunday through Thursday. The casualty toll may be an underestimate because Rohingya victims are unlikely to go to state hospitals, which are mostly in Arakanese communities.
The totals approach those from more publicized clashes in June, which left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. Some 75,000 people made homeless or fleeing violence were still in camps for the internally displaced before the latest clashes. The trouble has been confined to Arakan State.
Q: How long has this problem been going on?
A: Sectarian tensions predate Burmese independence in 1948 and stem in part from Rohingya loyalty to British colonizers. A Rohingya separatist movement also contributed to resentment against them. Burma’s then-military dictatorship encouraged popular harassment that pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas into neighboring Bangladesh beginning in the 1970s.
The current trouble dates back to June, when the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men triggered a series of escalating retaliatory attacks.
Q: What are the short-term causes of the problem?
A: Tensions have been high since the June violence, with some Arakanese and their allies stirring up calls for vigilante action against the Rohingya. In the recent clashes as well as in June, there have been murky signs of organized efforts at stirring up violence, but little is certain. In June, the army—whose sympathies lie with the Arakanese—was slow to restore order, but witnesses said this week it took some action to stop Buddhist attacks on Rohingya settlements.
Q: What are the long-term causes?
A: There is a perception among the Arakanese that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants encroaching on what they consider their native land, a point with which other Buddhist and nationalists elsewhere in Burma sympathize. An element of racism is involved since Rohingya look physically distinct from the country’s other peoples. Racism against the Rohingya was encouraged by previous military regimes to enlist support.
Q: What are the prospects for a solution?
A: After the June unrest, the main government response was to segregate the Arakanese and Rohingya communities, which in practice has often meant limiting the freedom of movement for the Rohingya. In July, President Thein Sein floated a vague proposal that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees resettle the Rohingya in a third country or take responsibility for them, a suggestion rejected by the United Nations as unsuitable.
Wide and deep popular antipathy toward the Rohingya places serious political constraints on conciliatory actions. Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, consolidating support for the next election in 2015, has been careful not to speak out strongly on the issue, disappointing many in the foreign human rights community.
Q: How do the events affect Burma’s moves toward democratization?
A: In June, Thein Sein pleaded for an end to the “endless anarchic vengeance,” warning that if the situation spun out of control it could jeopardize the democratic reforms he has begun to turn Burma around after almost five decades of repressive military rule. This week, his office warned, “As the international community is closely watching Burma’s democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country.” Foreign assistance is essential to reviving the country’s economy.
A statement issued Thursday by the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a similar point: “The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped. If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized.”
The International Crisis Group noted earlier this year that the nation’s newfound freedoms may have contributed to the problem.
“The loosening of authoritarian constraints may well have enabled this current crisis to take on a virulent intensity,” the group said. “It is not uncommon that when an authoritarian state loosens its grip, old angers flare up and spread fast.”