Arakan Strife Could Spread Across Burma: ICG

By Charlie Campbell 13 November 2012

Recent sectarian violence in Arakan (Rakhine) State threatens national stability and could spread into wider religious conflict unless tackled through decisive moral leadership, claims the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a new report.

Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon indicates there is a real risk that the localized Arakan State conflict could take on a more general Buddhists-versus-Muslims dimension and spread to other parts of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic country.

“Social tensions are rising as more freedom allows local conflicts to resurface,” says Paul Quinn-Judge, ICG’s acting Asia program director. “Moral leadership is required now to calm tensions and new compromises will be needed if divisive confrontation is to be avoided.”

The Brussels-based group tracks the broad changes that have continued to move Burma away from authoritarianism despite the recent and serious backward step of communal violence in the country’s west.

“The Myanmar government and legislature have demonstrated that they possess the vision and leadership to shift the country decisively away from its authoritarian past,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG’s Southeast Asia project director.

“But they will inevitably face major challenges, including containing and resolving the intercommunal conflict that has engulfed Rakhine State and reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State.”

In May 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman allegedly by three Muslim men ignited long-simmering tensions between the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya communities. Since June, rioting has led to more than 100 people killed, thousands of homes burnt down and tens of thousands made homeless, according to official figures.

While the local authorities have been seen to take the Arakanese side in the conflict, international aid agencies including the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders have faced threats and intimidation from the Buddhist majority for supposedly siding with the Muslims.

The ICG sees the recent unrest as taking place in the context of President Thein Sein introducing more democratic policies and consolidating power among reformers. Political prisoners have been released, protests permitted, censorship reduced and cabinet reshuffled to remove or sideline ministers who were seen as too conservative or ineffective.

The ICG report, released on Monday, also points at the difficulty in reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State as underlining the complexity of forging a sustainable peace with ethnic armed groups. There are also rising grassroots tensions over land grabs, environmental and social concerns regarding foreign-backed infrastructure and mining projects as well as widespread human rights violations committed by government troops.

A report by the Free Burma Rangers humanitarian group released on Oct. 23 provides independent verification of the continuing abuses that threaten national conciliation in Kachin State.

“On July 8, soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 321, Infantry Battalion (IB) 28 and IB 37 raped a 58-year-old woman [name withheld for victim’s protection] from Hpa Re Village in the Pang Wa area. She is married with one child. Burma Army soldiers also raped a 39-year-old who is a widowed mother of 12,” reported the group.

“Kachin villagers have also been subject to unlawful capture and torture. On June 1, [Border Guard Force] Battalion 1001 arrived at Tang Gaw Village and captured 34-year-old Tang Gaw Ting Sau, a Kachin pastor, with two sons and a wife.

“His wife recounted how Burma Army soldiers covered his eyes and beat him after they captured him. He was imprisoned for his alleged association with the [Kachin Independence Army]. As of the latest report, Burma Army soldiers are still holding him captive.”

David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the broader ceasefire pattern was more worrying for the overall prospects of nationwide peace than the current situation in western Burma.

“Ongoing conflict in Kachin and the possibility that the ceasefires in Burma could breakdown probably represents more of a threat to the reform process than anything else,” he said. “The peace process in the east, while looking good from the outside, is going through a very fragile time and it needs to have a lot more effort given to cementing those ceasefires and ending the conflict in Kachin State.”

Mathieson explained that the lack of progress with ethnic groups that have an established military and political apparatus was more troubling than the “murky elements” on all sides of the communal conflict in Arakan State, but that separating the two communities would only lead to future strife.

“I think segregation is the recipe for further intercommunal violence in the future,” he added. “Slow integration and legal acceptance for minorities with education and religious tolerance should be the way forward. Segregation is a short-term security solution rather than a long-term peace-building solution.”

The ICG report says a major test for the government’s security forces will be maintaining law and order without rekindling memories of the recent authoritarian past. Furthermore, competition between Thein Sein’s reformist administration and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy leading up to the 2015 general election could lead to more confrontational social movements unless handled carefully.