Fresh Arakan Strife Bad Omen for Reform

The fresh violence in Arakan State will have serious implications for Burma and regional stability if it does not stop immediately. The international community must not remain passive in this regard or the country’s fragile democratic transition will face a grim setback.

However, if the current sectarian strife is really being pushed by hardliner factions in the political apparatus, as some insider sources believe, then we should not be surprised to see Burma’s recent political opening retreat.

On Thursday, the United Nations expressed concern through a statement. “The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped,” said a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“It is vital for the government and all concerned to prevent further violence and to defuse tensions between the two communities,” the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana said while presenting a report to the General Assembly in New York on Thursday.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan also voiced concern. “The situation is deteriorating and there is now a risk of a radicalization of the Rohingya. This would not be good for anyone,” he told The Bangkok Post.

“The conflict has been presented as an Islamic issue when it is not. It is a political, democratic, human rights and constitutional issue, and has direct implications on political reform and national reconciliation processes in Myanmar,” added Surin.

He also warned that the Arakan State violence would have wider strategic and security implications for the region. This is true and the unrest will certainly push refugees to flee across the border and so entail serious humanitarian and security implications for the future.

In August, Surin sent a letter to all Asean foreign ministers urging them to meet and address the Rohingya issue. This came in the wake of violence between the two communities in July. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong, the current Asean chair, called a meeting of the ministers. However, Burma refused to take part and said that the situation was under control. It is now hoped that the issue will be raised at the upcoming regional meeting in Cambodia.

Despite protestations to the contrary from Naypyidaw, it is obvious that the situation on the ground has escalated and the government has sent more troops to the region as a consequence.

Targeted attacks were not merely confined to the Rohingya, of whom around 800,000 are understood to live in northern Arakan State. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya community as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Many Burmese believe them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.

Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya advocacy group the Arakan Project, told a wire news agency at the weekend, “It’s not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it’s anti-Muslim.” Members of the Kaman minority, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who live in Kyaukpyu Town, have also been forced flee the violence.

These fresh clashes erupted after the Burmese government blocked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from opening an aid office to assist displaced Rohingya after the June violence.

Undoubtedly, the government has been slow to react to the ongoing crisis while the President’s Office has sent mixed signals to the domestic and international community. Buddhist monks and ethnic Arakanese have in general strongly objected to the OIC opening an office in Burma. Peaceful protests against the OIC were held in cities across the country prior to the latest violence.

Many Burmese monks and ordinary Buddhists believe that allowing an OIC operation would only radicalize the Rohingya population and aid the dissemination of Islam in the country. The strength of these concerns should not be treated lightly.

In July, Thein Sein told UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, “Burma will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Burma.”

Then again in August, Thein Sein told Voice of America that his government would open schools to improve the education of minority Rohingya Muslims who claim they are being persecuted by the majority Buddhist state.

Critics then argued that since the outbreak of violence in Arakan State there has been no transparency and accountability regarding the fate of victims as well as those instigating the violence. Informed sources revealed that if a hardliner faction in the establishment is behind things, they must have been working to instigate the violence for several months. If so, they have succeeded in seriously damaging the country.

The opposition, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and other prominent figures, has hopelessly failed to intervene or calm the situation. Many, especially in the international community and human rights organizations, were disheartened to see such inaction from those who still claim to represent the democracy movement.

Interestingly, government officials have once again promised to take action against the instigators. A spokesman for the President’s Office has also said that the government is looking to prosecute those responsible.

But where are they? And who are they?

Minister for Border Affairs Lt-Gen Thein Htay said, “At a time when the government is embarking on economic reforms to invite foreign investments and create jobs for people, instability like this has a certain impact on efforts of the state.”

Indeed, there are several theories. One suggests that hardliner factions in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party were behind the violence in order to undermine the president’s reform process.

A second theory is that the strife was intended to allow the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, to return to the spotlight. In the past, the former junta launched several military campaigns against the Rohingya—and every time the Burmese people rallied behind the military.

Burmese feudal kings have always played a key role in protecting Buddhism in the country. Therefore, the current military generals have always played the Muslim or Rohingya card to win the hearts and minds of the population.

Nevertheless, there are other players to consider. They are Rohingya sympathizers—some radical elements both in and outside the country as well as campaign groups who want to simplify the issue into black and white terms.

We must put things into perspective—to listen to voices of the Arakanese as well as the Rohingya. These two communities must learn to co-exist together in peace.

The current violence is not surprising as ordinary Arakanese and Burmese and those in the armed forces have long believed that Burma’s western frontier is breaking down. Many Arakanese claim that they have always protected their homeland to deter an influx of Muslims from neighboring countries.

If Burma wants to achieve genuine national reconciliation, we must embrace full integration and recognition of minorities. Burma’s ethnic groups, including the Arakanese, have been treated poorly under the previous and current regimes.

On the issue of the Rohingya—who many Burmese believe are illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh—one must also take into account the attitude of Burma’s military leaders.

Burma scholar Professor David Steinberg wrote in his book “Burma/Myanmar: what everyone needs to know” that Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who retired from public life last year, believes that the most dangerous Burmese frontier region is that shared with Bangladesh—not the area by China as many previously thought.

If he believed as much, then numerous senior military leaders, possibly including Thein Sein, will no doubt share a similar attitude. Whoever was behind this latest violence, sadly these days many ordinary Burmese see eye-to-eye with the former junta chief.

11 Responses to Fresh Arakan Strife Bad Omen for Reform

  1. George Than Setkyar Heine

    And they are BANGALI MUSLIMS to be HONEST and in the FIRST PLACE.
    Decades of NEGLECT and LACK of BORDER SECURITY culminated in Rohingya population BALLOONING to nearly a MILLION in Arakan State as ALL KNOW in BURMA.
    “If Burma wants to achieve genuine national reconciliation, we must
    embrace full integration and recognition of minorities. Burma’s ethnic
    groups, including the Arakanese, have been treated poorly under the
    previous and current regimes”.
    Of course this statement is CORRECT for ETHNIC MINORITIES of Burma which includes the ARAKANESE but NOT the ROHINGYA only ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS from BANGLADESH for that MATTER.
    Best BET to RESOLVE the Rohingya Issue is to QUARANTINE the ROHINGYA on the Burma Bangladesh BORDER in CAMPS as the FIRST STEP in that direction.
    And the US, UN and OIC should DO THEIR JOB – render humanitarian help and others – before RESETTLING THEM in THIRD COUNTRIES most preferably in the 57 countries under the OIC of course as the ROHINGYA are MUSLIMS who worship ALLAH as well in the first place.
    A DETAILED and THOROUGH CENSUS specifically TAKEN  in Arakan State at the earliest is ESSENTIAL and NON-NEGOTIABLE for BORDER SECURITY in the future at that corner of Burma to PREEMPT ANOTHER ROHINGYA INCURSION (BANGALI MUSLIMS) into ARAKAN STATE in particular and Burma in general of course.
    And a GENERAL CENSUS COUNTRYWIDE should be in order as well given the fact LARGE INFLUX of ETHNIC CHINESE as well are ALREADY in Burma BUYING EVERYTHING in SIGHT and for SALE including Burmese WOMEN for concubines no less to CLAIM CITIZENSHIP and ETHNIC RIGHTS as well in the very near future, any bets?
    Ethnic Chinese HOLDING BURMESE CITIZENSHIP CARDS in hand could/would POSE a MORE REAL and PRESENT DANGER for Burma than the ROHINGYA MUSLIMS with NOTHING to SHOW for THEIR PRESENCE in Burma lest Thein Sein and Daw Suu as well forget.

    • Correctly done. This is the truth. Many Chinese in Mandalay do not speak a word in Burmese. They are Burmese citizens through corrupt immigration officers who sold citizenship cards to the Chinese as low as $ 300 a piece. These Chinese are citizens in China too. Burma is becoming a concubine for the China. Now, the current regime is not stepping up to tackle the illegal immigration issue either. George’s comment must be seriously taken by the Thein Sein government. 

  2. The Burmese Freedom Fighter

    A utopia of free of violence or discrimination where simple integration is what all it takes to get there is the only closest senseless insides of this article! Incredible! Take your lifelong blinders off and see how depressed you’ll get then!  The take on against Burmese people through sarcasm, passive aggressive over their hard reality in the face of Bengali invasion at the west gate of Burma is absolutely the star of bad omen of Irrawaddy for reform in Burma.

    Your highly perceptive comment in this article that Burmese people see eye-to-eye with dictator Than Shwe on Bengali issues in western part of Burma is so outrageous, and it is complete sarcasm and passive aggressive toward entire nation of Burma. Most of the quotes and views used in this article are those of Burmese military hardliners and international human rights groups, an outright ignorance to those of the views of ordinary Burmese population, democracy activists, and civil-society organizations at large in Burma. The encroachment of Bengali from Bangladesh to Burma is the fact that makes the situation more complicated, acquiring Burma to distinguish in sorting out its responsibilities for those of Bengali who have lived generation after generation in Burma and recent influx of Bengali.      

    The racial hate crimes in rival community can’t be solved with that simple child brain proposition of integrating Bengali into Burmese society by granting respective status of residency of Burma; it has to do with brooder tolerance and acceptance of each other differences. Condescending tone in giving solution by blaming majority in protection of alien minority is only good for getting political capital to author of this article Ko Aung Zaw at the cost of finding an urgently needed immediate end to the hate violence.  

    The gut is needed to make precise decision to stop violence right away; nothing else, but separation of the rival community: the designated safe area for Bengali until hostile situation returns to its calm. This is absolutely learning curve of new Burmese society in its search for transforming violence as a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.

    The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  3. 1. First of all, if the authorities really took again at the begiining when Arakan girl was raped and murdered by Rohinga,a dn those who killed the 10 muslims, the  root-cause of problems could have been solved.
    2. Secondly, unethical media who wanted to ignite tjis issue to make money  is to be blamed.
    3. Millions of Burmese who  have been staying in Thailand have no rights to claim to be Thai citizens.  Definitely, Rohingas who have been living in Thaiuland have no right to claim to be ethnic Myanmar minirity.
    4. Teza and DawKyaing Kyaing have transfered their money to muslim countries, including Brunei, they can easily black mail Myanmar government. Naypyidaw has already showed green light to open OIC office sat firs, but only after the monks protest, Naypyiudaw said OIC be only adhoc.  How can they say like this. OIC will support in any possible means at the border with weapons, money for un rest until they get what they want.  Naypyidaw authorities and Media should have sense of National Patriotism and responsibility to protect. Don’t mix human right issues and Rohingas. They are not at all Manmar ethnics.
    5.  The whole muslim world will tray any possible means to support Rohingas at the Esteren border.  Myanmar will be like Southern Thailanbd and seperatists unrest will be there foever.
    6. No way Military Coup will be back and all of us  go to hell and all must shere responsibility. Naypyidaw, Law makers , media should take responsibility first.


    I’m highly appreciated of Irrawaddy editor Ko AungZaw’s well
    writing with true heart. Surprisingly, not only the Burmese governments but also the majority
    of Burmese Buddhists believe that the most dangerous Burmese frontier region
    is that shared with Bangladesh, not the area by China. Irony is that Burmese
    government’s immigration law and citizenship law is based on individual’s religion
    rather than citizenship rights, as individual’s faith (religion) is standardize
    criteria for considering Burmese nationality. Authorities are easily allowing illegal
    immigrant of some Nepali Buddhists, Bangladeshi Buddhists, Indian Buddhists and
    much of Chinese, and providing National Identity (Citizenship Card) by authorities’
    self-consent or in bribery and corruption. I would pinpoint that is the main
    loophole for Burmese immigration and very dangerous for the future generation.

    I’ll tell you my real experience found here in Thailand. As
    some of my friends are doing business in providing Burmese National
    Verification and passport services to Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, I
    used to participate with them and know the process of doing migrant passport. Before
    two governments’ migrant work-permit passport program, Thai government had legalized
    yearly work-permit program for undocumented migrant workers in Thailand
    including Burmese workers. Since then, most of Burmese migrants have been
    holding Thai government’s legal documents (work-permit) and working under Thai
    law for several years. After two governments’ work-permit passport program,
    migrant workers needed to have passports, and National Identification Card is
    required to get Burmese government’s official passport. We all know that majority
    of Burmese migrants have no National Identification Card to show their
    citizenship, then Burmese authorities set double standard for the Burmese
    migrant workers based on religion. Buddhist people do not required to show their
    NI card in their national verification process, where Muslim people highly
    required showing their NI card with household lists. There is one case I feel really
    sad is that, there is one Nepali man who could hardly speak Burmese in Indian
    accent, who is a Buddhist in Indian feature, had no NI card and no household
    list. First, authorities didn’t give him a passport because they thought he was
    a Muslim. After Nepali man bow-down several times to authority and said he is a
    Buddhist, authorities provided him a passport. For those who are Muslim in
    Indian features and no have NI cards were not recognized as Burmese citizen so
    they didn’t get legal work-permit passports. Accordingly, those Muslim faced really
    hard struggle to work legally under human rights.  If you guys really want Myanmar to develop,
    please see the people with open hearts and find the knowledge as much as you can
    so then we can serve back our country in very near future.   


  5. We can learn serious lesson from serious problem. I believe this violence will not bring us down. Instead we can prove that the people in the Union of Burma are able to handle any kind of problem with dignity.


  7. Very sad to see all these fatal clashes between the two
    communal groups.

    I’m sure there are certain groups who are profiting out from
    this crisis while the two communities are losing their love ones.

    According to this article, as much as Arakanese claim that
    they have always protected their homeland to deter an influx of Muslims from neighbouring
    countries and/or Rohingya sympathizers—some radical elements both in and
    outside the country as well as campaign groups who want to simplify the issue
    into black and white terms, these kind of crises are never simple.  It is always driven by greedy individuals and
    Burma is not the only country which has fallen into these sorts of systematic

    But this is also a test for the people of Burma whether we
    are ready to walk toward a bigger and wider society. If we are rigidly defined
    ourselves by the man-made boundaries of so-called maps, we should never leave
    from those boundaries. Don’t travel abroad or the regions out from that
    boundary. Don’t learn or use science or technology that was discovered by other
    nationalities. Don’t dream for the ideas of democratic society that other
    nationalities had first developed and enjoyed.

    If we look at the maps of African countries, we will see a
    lot of straight lines. Is this possible for a tribe to live on a straight line
    pattern? The answer is “NO”. They were colonial countries and those messed-up maps
    were drawn by European countries. They are never natural borders but man-made
    which explained why ethnic cleansing and civil wars are still going on in
    Africa. The map of Burma was also drawn by the British and it has never been
    perfect as any other colonial countries.

    On the websites and facebook pages, the propagandas from
    both sides are posted every day. Although some will claim themselves nationalists,
    fighting for the religions or human rights, don’t forget that there are also
    people who are paid to spread the vicious rumours by greedy individuals/groups
    so that they could continue to enjoy the resources of the country if Burma is
    ever derailed from the current progress.

    I really want to urge the people who have genuine concerned
    for the development of Burma, “think first before they post or share these
    propagandas”. Even some acts or words meant innocently, they are no longer
    served the true intentions. Don’t let the greedy people take advantage on

    • The Burmese Freedom Fighter

      Hello Thandar:

      It would be very good to learn your take on to inside of this violence, and some short term and long term solution to it. Now the violence is in its way to go beyond Bengali issues and in its verge of religion conflict as Kaman Ethnic of Burma, believer in Islam, has been attacked recently. Your thought on that is very much appreciated. 

      Hatred is something that we all have to learn and overcome to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. Unless somehow Rakhine state has this ongoing violence ceded, there won’t be any prospect of security, stability and peace for the whole nation of Burma. We all have to try our best to hold upon our high moral ground. 

      The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  8. Everyone has right to freely express his/her view on a matter. This article is also one of such expressions.  It is not easy for everyone to accept the facts and opinion of the author. This problem is a very subtle one. It cannot be solved with superficial views and prejudice. At this moment, it is very important for  both communities, Rakhine and Bagali, to stop the fighting each other. Instead of demanding how to solve the matter, we should give suggestions to the authority concerned. And it is very important to seriously consider local Rakhines’ views and that of Bengali. I firmly believe that this problem deteriorated  because the Myanmar News Agencies based on exile  and International News Agencies wrote a controversial name called ‘Rohinga’ in their report with the superficial study of the history without considering local people’s views and opinion.

    Mrat Linn

  9. Thandar Myint Wrote: “Most of Rakhine Buddhist people have been living together with Muslims for long enough and there were no major clashes like this for a long time ago which indicated for me that they can tolerate and able to live harmonically with different religions. However, they wanted to highlight the problems of the illegal immigration which put a huge burden on their regions and they wanted government to tackle the problems. Their voices had never been heard.”
    Not true. Their voices have been heard and in 1978 alone 200, 000 Rohingyas were forced out of Arakan and international agencies visiting refugee camps  found Rohingyas carrying NRC. The hated Fascist General Ne win finding no alternatives accepted the Rohingyas. However, in 1982, he declared the Rohingyas as the non citizens. Contrary to your  understanding, until now there has been over a million Rohingya people pushed out of Arakan, lately there houses been torched.
     Mr. Thandar Myint, you have been feed the wrong information; as you believe there has not been any new Bengali illegal immigrant to Arakan. Arakan has been a hell from 1942 Japan British war. You should know, Bangladesh’s Chakma, Tanchayanga, Marma and Rakhines and the Rohingyas in southern Bangladesh are originally Arakanese who entered Bangladesh and now the citizens of Bangladesh. Please read the following research link for more details:

    Abid Bahar

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