Why is Western Burma Burning?

Western Burma is burning.

Why is it burning?

One initial incident, of course: On May 28, a 26-year-old Arakanese woman called Thida Htwe was raped and murdered, allegedly by three young Rohingya Muslim men, in mainly Buddhist Arakan State.

Why is it burning?

Revenge, of course: On June 3, six days later, a lynch mob of 300 Buddhist Arakanese stopped a bus, dragged out ten Muslim pilgrims and beat them to death. The victims, who were not Rohingyas, were on the way back to their homes in Rangoon.

Why is it burning?

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Media and social media, of course: Some internet users insensitively posted pictures of the initial slaughter on their Facebook accounts. These spread quickly and stirred other users to share emotional responses. A weekly Burmese journal, Snapshot, based in Rangoon, even published a picture of Thida Htwe’s corpse with her throat slit. Later, the journal was suspended indefinitely by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Information Ministry which charged the publication with printing inflammatory coverage.

Why is it burning?

Another round of vengeance, of course: On June 8, more than 1,000 angry Muslim Rohingyas in Maungdaw Township, by the Bangladeshi border, swept through 22 predominantly Buddhist villages after their Friday prayers attacking residents and burning houses. According to official figures, seven people were killed, 17 people seriously injured and around 500 houses and shops destroyed.

It was at this point when the Arakan situation truly became a blaze. The authorities issued a curfew yet state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar said in its coverage the next day that more than 1,000 “terrorists” rioted after dark.

Why is it burning?

Hate speak, of course: On Jun 5, state-run Burmese newspapers Kyemon and Myanmar Ahlin used the derogatory term kalar while referring to Muslims in their reports of the Arakan violence. The next day, a correction was made after the director-general of the government’s Information and Public Relations Department was criticized on Facebook. He also urged people not to use similar terms in order to avoid enflaming the conflict further.

The word “terrorist” has also become popular amid more traditional foul language. “Recent events in western Burma have created a hurricane of hate in the online sphere,” AFP quoted Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University.

Why is it burning?

Arakan’s history itself, of course: Conflict in the state goes back as far as anyone cares to look. Rohingya say their origins can be traced back to the 8th century when the first Arabian Muslims arrived in Arakan State as traders, although some historians deny there is any connection between early Arabs and the Rohingya. By contrast, the Arakanese say that the term Rohingya did not exist until the 1950s. According to Burmese historian Dr. Maung Maung, the word Rohingya cannot be found in the 1824 census conducted by the British.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Arakan was an independent principality and home to both Buddhists and Muslims. After the British waged its first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26 in Lower Burma, including Arakan State, tens of thousands of immigrants from British India were brought in to work in the local paddy fields.

There were several riots at the time between Arakanese and Rohingyas, who were then referred to as Bengalis. One of the biggest riots in 1942 left several thousand Muslims as well as 20,000 Arakanese dead. This ugly history does not seem to have ended.

Why is it burning?

Lack of the rule of law, of course: Within one week, 29 people—13 Arakanese and 16 Rohingyas—have been killed, more than 2,500 houses burned down and around 31,000 people displaced, according to official figures released on Thursday.

The rule of law is an issue which Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi frequently emphasizes. “Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue,” Suu Kyi said on her current trip to Europe. “The present situation will have to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity and we need the cooperation of all people concerned to rebuild the peace that we want for our country.”


24 Responses to Why is Western Burma Burning?

  1. We marvel slightly at the propensity to equivocate between Rakhine and Rohingya responsibility for this “burning.” The simple truth of the matter is that we’ve collected hundreds of instances of hideous hate speech directed against the Rohingya by extremist elements in Rahkine and elsewhere in Burmese society. Virtually all of these were prior to this “burning” beginning, in addition to the countless examples elsewhere. In the inverse case, virtually all of the negative speech directed from the Rohingya towards the Rakhines have begun after this incident.

    Rakhine-Rohingya speech tends towards comments like “dog” and “scum” and “terrorist” and the like, while Rohingya-Rakhine speech tends towards “racist” and “extremist” and “fake Buddhist.” The former terms are purely negative hate speech. There is no call to use them and they are all needlessly inflammatory (the accusation of “terrorist” is particularly so since it is applied to invoke the spectre of al-Qaeda while virtually all credible scholars know that there is greater likely presence of these influences in Rangoon than Arakan) with no bearing to reality. The latter set of terms is fairly descriptive and focuses on behaviors rather than identity (and notably implies that “real” Buddhism is connected to peace even though the anti-Rohingya crowd seems hellbent on suggesting that “real” Islam is connected to hate/violence).

    It is not acceptable to cite people that are “doctors” of academia when their research isn’t taken seriously by any credible or respected peers. It’s disappointing that the NLD and DASSK herself hasn’t taken a stronger line to affirm, perhaps via Buddhism itself, that there needs to be tolerance and existence or to flatly decry the Rakhine-grounded swell of hatred that racks Burma. It’s disappointing that there are still major advocacy organizations internationally who have failed to speak out and make an unequivocal statement that the time for hate speech directed towards anyone has passed and to acknowledge the history has been tilted against the Rohingya themselves by elements in Arakan.

    There are a number of ethnic peoples with unknown origins and many others have origin stories that involve relatively recent migrations. Even the Bamar themselves allegedly came from Yunnan province (as did Tai peoples, the Kachin, and many others). Does this make them outsiders? Should everyone who can’t trace a bloodline to Bagan leave or register as a “resident alien”? Do Anglo-Burmese or Indo-Burmese have to leave? Are those refugees born outside of the country not allowed to become citizens? Do other ethnicities who transcend international borders (Naga, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon, etc) find themselves suspect? Do migrant workers of even Bamar descent find themselves suspect?

    The simple fact of the matter is that there are a great deal of places/cultures/nations that have had to grapple with these issues. The South in the United States, the entire nation of Germany, South Africa under the Apartheid regime, have all confronted their grim and complicit pasts and moved on to a brighter future. Importantly, it unquestionably involved those responsible to take responsibility and to acknowledge that they had been the prime actors in creating atmospheres of violence. To suggest that there is comparable agency here is like citing examples of criminality committed by American blacks, German Jews, or South African Indians: it misses the trend.

    Violence of this sort is an unacceptable way to solve these problems. But to pretend that there is some sort of equivalent responsibility that rests on all shoulders is beyond delusional and a betrayal of the journalistic standard that once made “Irrawaddy” a great magazine and could again. But make no mistake and step up to the plate. Join the history of those media who have had the courage to swim against the populist tide to tell the truth:
    1. This has largely been a war of words and hateful emotions directed against a people who make up less than 25% of a marginal state in an incredibly poor region.
    2. The “multicultural” organizations who have so valiantly (and properly) defended the crises affecting Burma’s peoples along the Thai and Chinese borders are generally absent in selectively publicizing these things and almost invisible when it comes to the Rohingya and to do so is clearly related to race/religion.
    3. It is hate speech when formerly respected leaders like Ko Ko Gyi and Moe Thee Zun speak negatively about a group more marginalized than they have ever been. It is a betrayal of a movement that has brought them to safety and international awareness. They are the Winnie Mandelas of the democracy dream of a multicultural federal union.
    4. Making politically difficult statements is what gives politicians real value in the world. If any party in any country eschews its responsibility to adhere to principles of Human Rights, they are doomed to walk a low path indeed.
    5. There is NO question that there needs to be a complete cessation of violence on all sides. But there’s a much larger question to be answered here: How can Burma include all of its peoples under principles of equality and mutuality? If this question isn’t answered, if this answer isn’t deployed? Burma is doomed more inevitably to failure than the Generals could have ever hoped. That would be tragic.

    In closing, we note that we are two interns who were born in America to Americans who, in turn, were born to parents who were Bamar Buddhist and who have, in turn, bloodline connections to Arakan state and Rakhine blood relatives. Who are we? We do not read nor write Burmese very well (yet) and English is definitely our first language with Burmese a second. Are we Burmese? We feel it so in our very deepest thoughts and feelings as much as we are also indisputably American. And we would return to help build “our” country as soon as it can accept all of its peoples as heartily and happily as we feel accepted in America with our friends who are Muslim and Christian and Jewish and Hindu and Native American and Buddhist and people of all colors and gay and straight and young and old. We are sure that we are “real Burmese.” We’re not so sure about anyone from any group who uses hate speech. They’re not real Americans and they’re not real Burmese. We don’t need a regime to tell us who is and who is not “real.” We follow the words of our religion and our families and our hearts and our critical minds.

    *We also note that this is OUR opinion and not that of the Roundtable or its convenors or advisory board and that we choose to risk our internship status to make this statement anyway. Thank you for your time.*

    • Thank you Burma Roundtable for your effort. Thak you Irrawady for publishing this cooment. It look like oasis in the middle of desert.

    • Very well meaning but sorry, depressingly ignorant of the Buddhist Rakhine’s history vis-a-vis Burmese aggression that culminated in its annexation in 1784, and since colonial times invasion, settlement and aggression from another direction.

      When history is being rewritten on a daily basis by the ‘champions of the most persecuted minority’ according to the latter’s dictates, it is worth revisiting what Dr Aye Chan had to say in his paper titled The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of BUrma (Myanmar) published by the SOAS in the Bulletin of Burma Research, Autumn 2005 (see pp397,401,406-7,411-2,414).

      Thanks for advocating peaceful conflict resolution but please no patronizing, we are Burmese.

  2. Now that Kyaw Zwa Moe explained everything on one single page, I understand everything about this conflict in Rakhaing State, OF COURSE!
    I would like Kyaw Zwa Moe to write another one page article explaining everything about what’s happening in Kachin State right now. After that he can write one-page articles, of course, about the Wa’s, Shans, Karen (perhaps all of that can be done together in one page?)
    If Burma’s problems are so facile, why don’t people just solve them. They don’t want to, I guess, but then don’t complain about why Burma has so many conflicts. They have to be there, of course.

  3. @tocharian – a little leeway needed here, methinks: this is journalism (and good journalism at that) rather than an academic paper or emergency report. Anyway, I’ve seen more simplistic postage stamp-sized explanations this week than I care to recall, causing me (and many others no doubt) to lose sleep and friends. Along with the quality contribution from burma roundtable above, hopefully this is the start of a more reflective, constructive period. It’s what we all need, imho.

  4. Burma Roundtable!
    Cheers to you guys. I like you guys opinion. Next, w have to talk about Border Security. Why are Border security require for Nations and country? Can a Nation survive without border security? How about IT (Information Techonology) of the country and what kind of condiion Burma is in when it comes to IT?

  5. I am from Burma and one of your readers. I just read your article “Why Is Western Burma Burning?”. I want to say that it was a great article and it helped me learn the truth and the history behind the situation. It’s hard to find such balanced report. I want to say thank you for this article because we need unbiased, and balanced news and reports. Otherwise, we’ll be overran by hate messages and biased media. So, thank you.
    Kaung Htet

  6. Juicy as this horrid hate speech business is even after just about all the aid workers, enlightened journalists and academics and Rohingya Inc. itself recited again and again with relish, it may eclipse other important features of this heinous crime. The crime of starting a racial and religious riots harming tens of thousands of people and surely the deaths would be in hundreds now and still to come with deprivations.

    Aftermath:

    Everyone got scared.

    Houses in thousands burned.

    Military got stronger. They are the heroes. They are the saviours. We need more of the military not less of them.

    The Chinese who until now most people wanted to get rid off for their rape and pillage of the country and currently stealing vulnerable Kachins for human trafficking are forgottened.

    The Muslim everywhere in Burma got more scared than average other citizens. Beat the chicken to scare the monkey!

    Just about all the Rohingya quarters in Sit-twe got burned so that the “cronies” can simply help to “rehabilitate” now!
    The people who started the fire did not leave signatures. But people who want the land will need signatures and cash.

    If there was any hope for the Rohingya cause before, it got worse now.

    That’s what happens now.

    Who really started it? Why would the Arakanese so far from the area of the first incidence choose to kill a large number of visitors who patently had nothing to do with the case in a well planned and efficient manner in military precision and ruthlessness with obvious insult? There has been many riots before but this one is totally put of character.

    It has emerged that the perpetrators were not local. This heinous act definately is a carbon copy of the 2003 Deparin massacre down to stopping in the middle of the road and using home made implements efficiently.

    There surely are more and more chauvinistic Burmese elements made worse recently as the WEST suck up the military who are committing MORE crimes not less simply because they will now get the share of the country Burma which only the Chinese have been getting before.

    All of the above argue that both majority public of the country Burma and the Rohingya are thoroughly screwed by the usual suspects, again!

    None of them argue that those two groups should keep on killing each other anymore. Both are the poor, poor victims. And their cruel common enemy, the military is now feted by the west, the champions of democracy.

  7. I am from Burma and one of your readers. I just read your article “Why Is Western Burma Burning?”. I want to say that it was a great article and it helped me learn the truth and the history behind the situation. It’s hard to find such balanced report. I want to say thank you for this article because we need unbiased, and balanced news and reports. Otherwise, we’ll be overran by hate messages and biased media. So, thank you.

  8. Like other Burmese citizens, I had a very disgusting feeling about former military regimes and the process leading to 2008 Constitution. I was critical about myself whether I was too pessimistic.
    I started admiring the new government aftermath of 2010 election even though I had strong reservation. I admire particularly President U Thein Sein for his swift steps towards handling the country in a very complex situation. (I never name his processors Ne Win, Saw Maung, Khin Nyunt & Than Shwe politely). His body language shows he speaks his mind and heart.
    However, all my euphoria has gone to the drain in the last couple of weeks. The President seems lonely and the country is heading to “Sunset at the Dawn”. Burmese history supports this claim. There are vicious cycles of “Election, Democracy, Parliament, Unrest, and Military coup and Military Government” as we have witnessed in 1962, 1990 and probably again in 2012.
    Something is terribly wrong somewhere. The First World War was ignited with stabbing death of Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo. If there were no hatred fuel stored in the hearts of millions, the flame would not be vanishing millions of lives. Burmese people need to look their future beyond Rakhine State. The image of those Burmese leaders crying for democracy and human rights is currently under microscope. Human Rights and Democracy do not have any racial and religious boundaries. In the end, the best people qualify to run the country seems to be the military again for unspecified decades.

    • I need to apologise for my wrong judgement of President Thein Sein. He is as stupid as all other bloodsucers. He is falling the trap of RNDP Dr Aye Maung to jeopardise the stability of the country. The president’s proposal to UNHCR chief to resettle was not only childish but also stupid.

  9. I read carefully your opinion. You maintained in the article as day light true, nobody can deny it and I feel so comfortable with your writing. I hope in the future Irrawaddy will able to manage its nutrality and contribute with preserving excellent news what they have been carrying out since it started.

  10. The Rohingya are Burmese

  11. I could not agree Dr. Aye Chan historical facts as he has written several inflametary articles against poor minority. He is the person whom we should blame for communal riot. He has compared these people as virus.

  12. As a burmese buddhist (born/raised there for 20 years) who lives abroad, it was shocking to read some of the vitrol among online burmese community against a certain group of living things – be they burmese or space aliens. Setting aside the ‘he said, she said’ part of the media – which you always have to take with a healthy grain of salt – it appears to me that no single person pointed out that the riot started with the absence of application of the rule of law – and specifically by our own burmese people! When 3 people committed a bad crime, punish them in accordance with our own or int’l laws – as opposed to randomly killing 10 people in retribution. Even a crude application of “the principle of exact reciprocity/Hammurabi” couldn’t take one from 1 person being cruelly killed to 10, when there are only 3 perpetrators. That’s the first instance where everything breaks down. (Mind you, whethere they are burmese or not, no one has a right to just go out and randomly kill 10 people on the street, so please – spare me the “they are not buremse” argument.). Of course, if you corner (even)a dog long enough, they will bite you back. Rohingyas, probably under serious poverty and repression, fought back with vengeance — what they did was worse .. although the topic of “who started this riot” is probably very clear. Yet, among my burmese friends or on much of the online forums, i see comments such as “kill these Kalars, wipe them out, crush them etc etc”. REALLY?! There are innocent kids, women and children on their side who may have had NO part in this whole crisis, and yet, we would still try to kill them? Come on! Why so much hatred?? It has been really disappointing. I used to tell my non-burmese friends that we, burmese, are very kind, generous, and are caring souls. I am having a really hard time reconciling that statement with recent reactions to a group of living beings -granted not all burmese are hostile towards Rohingya. Now, both sides need to just chill the f- out, let the governement do its job – instead of putting gasoline on fire. Stop generalizing a group of people’s actions onto the entire race – on both sides! It is embarassing. It does not help anyone, especially Burmese, when this could unravel into riots and lawlessness, thereby ensuring that military would permanently stay in power (are we really THAT stupid? Buddha, help me.) — Concerned one

    • my burmese friend i appreciate your comments it’s natural.pls spread this message all over the world.i think it might be a bridge between two distance.i agree that burmese are usually generous similarly most of rohingyas are also kindly and generous but they are deeply frustrated,depressed and scared sealed by burmese military.force labor,restriction to move village to village,marriage,even can’t build new house all these preventions just for rohingya muslims.

      fresh brutalities and violations of burmese military has begun in maungdaw town on rohingyas as usual.they have been arresting innocent peoples releasing those who have been able to pay cash even in some villages like kyandong rowa,raza rowa and nurulla rowa,in maungdaw rapped girls this has been happening continuously because there is no media no reporter whatever military have been doing there are hidden from world.

  13. It all started with 3 immature youths who raped and killed an Arakan girl. They could not get away with this anyway and why need to kill 10 innocent lives for the three? When the 10 are killed, why the Rohingya need to kill Arakans and burn their houses. The law will follow them anyway but they resorted to take the law in their hands. Then everyone has been starting to take the law into their hands and the long problems that will continue for a long time, hopefully not. The rule of law is also as important as forgiveness. When will we learn? Wise people learned and do it. Simple people learned and disregard it. Oh, I wish I had known. Repentance came in quite late but there is still time for the living ones. Blessed are the peace-makers. Don’t escalate the ethnic any more or curse is on the way on those causing more rife and misunderstandings.

  14. No one has the right to kill 10 people and no one has the right to kill and rape just a young girl. Everyone human life is solemn and the rule of law is very important once written and executed with no favoritism with the solemn thought that all human life is divine.

  15. It seems Balkanization of Burma is inevitable and just a matter of time-bomb????

  16. Aung Swa Moe wrote “After the British waged its first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26 in Lower Burma, including Arakan State, tens of thousands of immigrants from British India were brought in to work in the local paddy fields.”
    Buddhism late ne win , than sein and than sein are not capable to take care of all Burmese ethnics, thein sein should demand UK to grant Rohingyas as their UK refugees. Before 1997, UK granted chosen Hong Kongess for their right of aboard of UK for the fear of suppressive communist take over. Thein sein might think ethnics are the rubbish left by British colony. Many Christian dominated countries accepted and accept the refugees from now and then regardless of their origin of birth. Buddhism Thein sein can also request rich China to accept Kachin as refugees including their Kachin land as well upon Kachin leader’s agreement. It can lessen the threat(political gain of DASSK’s peace negotiation participation) or prevent DASSK from fulfilling her father’s initial wish(General Aung san’s kyat equality for all ethnics-slogan becomes real true).
    More conflicts with ethnics , including Rohingyas issue will make more political gain for the necessity of bama military cruelty and suppression. Please, do not forget late ne win’s political gain in case of ethnic Chinese clash in 1967 after ne win mass killing of Rangoon university students.

  17. Let me put one stupid hypothesis in view of recent crisis in Arakan (as well as mixed feeling on Muslims in the rest of the country).
    If Burma is free from any Rohingya or Bengali or Muslims, could the country achieve the ultimate goal? Could the country be perfectly peaceful? Could the country be prosperous and well developed? Could anyone one can guarantee that other existing long standing ethnic conflicts will be solved?
    If the answer is YES, it is worth to drive out those unwanted. Enjoy forever …all very indigenous Burmese people. Good Luck!!
    If the answer is NO, It is not proper to show the dirty linen to the outside world. The optimistic future on Burma is at stake. The reputation of Burmese democracy and human rights champions are at stake.
    Nation building must come through good intention with harmony. Otherwise the country will be heading to unspecified decades of negative direction.

  18. Rohingas are obviously citizen of Burma, they are the son of the soil, so it is their born-right. Burmese Government should protect their own citizen. Restor rule of law. Take short and long term strategy to build confidence among the ethnic groups. Let all of them feel Burma their homeland. At first Change the communal name ‘Rakhayn State’ to previous name ‘Arakan State’ or something suitable. Take back Rohinga refugees from Bangladesh. And provide them with necessary support so that they may contribute to the mainstream economic and social activities like other ethnic groups without any discrimination.

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