Disquiet on the Western Front

By Aung Zaw 4 June 2015

Amid an ongoing crisis involving thousands of so-called “boat people” arriving on the shores of Asean nations or otherwise adrift in the seas of Southeast Asia, Myanmar and Bangladesh are in the spotlight as the two countries from which most of the migrants originate. With regard to Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, questions are again being asked about what is driving these men, women and children to undertake the dangerous journey by boat.

For many, the answer lies in 2012 unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, where more than 100 people were killed and some 140,000 others displaced in two bouts of violence. Most of those killed or displaced were Rohingya, and Muslims living in Rakhine State have since seen their living conditions deteriorate in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), movement restricted and other rights stripped.

The boat people from Myanmar, the commonly held belief holds, are fleeing the state-sponsored persecution that in recent years has simply made life in Rakhine State unbearable for Rohingya. There is little doubt that this is the major immediate cause of the exodus, but as this December 2012 story from The Irrawaddy reveals, tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State long predated the 2012 violence, stoked by a complex legacy dating back to British colonial rule.

The communal violence in Rakhine State has drawn the attention of the international community, including the countries of the Middle East, as media outside of Myanmar has exposed the plight of Rohingya Muslims in the north of the state near Bangladesh. The violence subsequently became an anti-Muslim campaign that received condemnation from governments around the world.

The Myanmar government, which has been widely applauded for its ongoing reform efforts, is once again on the defensive, as foreign observers warn that its handling of the Rakhine crisis could deal a serious blow to those efforts. In response, government officials have vowed to arrest and punish the culprits behind the unrest—although some still suspect that pro-government elements were among those directly involved.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

Indeed, the violence in Rakhine has wider implications. Surin Pitsuwan, the former secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has rightly pointed out that there is a risk that the Rohingya will be radicalized by this latest effort to force them out of the country. “This would not be good for anyone,” he told The Bangkok Post.

He also warned that any intensification of the communal strife in Rakhine State would have wider strategic and security implications for the region. This is true, as the unrest would force refugees to flee across the border, and so entail serious humanitarian and security concerns.

The Brussels-based think tank the International Crisis Group has also said in a new report that the sectarian violence in Rakhine State threatens national stability and could spread into a wider religious conflict unless tackled through decisive moral leadership.

Critics, including human rights groups, have accused the government of mishandling the crisis, noting that some government officials made extensive use of social media to foment anti-Rohingya sentiment. This resurgence of racism at a time when Myanmar is supposed to be restoring democracy and human rights is sad, indeed.

Many native Rakhine regard the Rohingya as foreign interlopers who have taken advantage of Myanmar’s porous border with Bangladesh to illegally enter the country. President U Thein Sein, who has been hailed as a reformist leader, seems to agree with this assessment. At a meeting with officials from the UN refugee agency UNHCR in June, he pointedly said that Myanmar would take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities, “but it is not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas.”

In this regard, the president’s attitude is not far removed from that of his predecessor, former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe. According to noted Myanmar scholar Prof. David Steinberg, the military junta leader who handed over power to U Thein Sein in 2011 strongly believed that Myanmar’s most dangerous frontier region is that shared with Bangladesh.

But this preoccupation with the perceived threat of a “Bengali invasion” is not limited to military men. Many native Rakhines, who considered themselves to be devout Buddhists, are convinced that the only defense against a twin tide of illegal immigrants and Islamists is to push back hard, with violence if necessary. Such a mindset creates the ideal conditions for an even more ominous threat—hardliners within the military seeking to roll back reforms under the cover of restoring security.

Locally, some Rakhine politicians also appear to be trying to take advantage of the current turmoil to advance their own interests. But this is not just an issue for the Rakhine alone: It is also affecting the political climate of the rest of the country, with many siding with the president, and more moderate voices sidelined or silenced by intimidation. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, admired around the world for her courage in standing up to Myanmar’s military, has been reluctant to speak out on this issue, earning her some rare criticism from her international admirers.

When pressed, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told the BBC World Service in November: “I am urging tolerance but I do not think one should use one’s moral leadership, if you want to call it that, to promote a particular cause without really looking at the sources of the problems.” Neither she nor her National League for Democracy (NLD) have visited Rakhine State since the violence began in June.

During her trip to India in November, she appeared to move closer to the president’s position. Calling the Rohingya issue a “huge international tragedy,” she implied that Bangladesh should also bear some responsibility. “Is there a lot of illegal crossing of the border [with Bangladesh] still going on? We have got to put a stop to it otherwise there will never be an end to the problem,” she said.

U Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent student leader and former political prisoner, has said that the 88 Generation Students group, of which he is a leading member, does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the ethnic nationalities of Myanmar. If necessary, he said, speaking to local media soon after the deadly riots between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities began, he would join the armed forces to drive out the “Bengalis.”

Coming from someone regarded as a champion of human rights, these words came as a real shock to many domestic and international colleagues, as well as diplomats and campaign groups. To put it simply, he was advocating human rights for all in Myanmar—except the Rohingya.

Since making these remarks, Ko Ko Gyi has been named a member of a government-appointed commission to investigate the unrest in Rakhine State. After visiting the state, he said his impression was that the government had handled the crisis poorly, and that the country’s citizenship law must be properly settled before peace can return. However, the commission itself has recently come under criticism for lacking credibility, after two Muslim members were sacked.

Many of the problems facing the Rohingya in Myanmar today date back to the 1982 citizenship Law introduced by then dictator Ne Win, whose xenophobic socialist regime decided to exclude this Muslim minority from the country’s list of 135 recognized ethnic groups. From that time on, the Rohingya have been officially regarded as migrants from Bangladesh with no status in Myanmar.

As is generally the case when two countries or cultures meet—and sometimes collide—the reality is far more complex than the official stance acknowledges. The Rohingya people settled in the Mayu Frontier Area—the area now known as Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in northern Rakhine State, close to Bangladesh—generations ago.

The seeds of the current conflict were sown during the Second World War, when the British allowed many migrants from what was then part of India to come settle in Myanmar. At the time, these Bengali-speaking migrants were called “Chittagonians.”

“Tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities were high during the British rule and communal riots broke out under the Japanese occupation,” wrote Moshe Yegar, an Israeli diplomat posted in Myanmar in the 1960s, in a thesis titled “The Muslims of Burma.”

Long before the war began, resentment was growing among ethnic Rakhines over the Zamindari system, under which Bengali migrants were permitted to hold 90-year leases on the land, effectively making them landowners who came to dominate agriculture in the region.

Adding to their sense of dispossession, the devoutly Buddhist Rakhine were also appalled to see the new settlers eagerly establishing mosques and Islamic schools in their homeland and marrying local women, who were converted to Islam.

In 1942, when Japanese troops were advancing on Myanmar, the Rakhines’ pent-up hostility toward the settlers came to a head. “Gangs of Arakanese [Rakhine] Buddhists in southern Arakan where the Buddhists were in the majority attacked Muslims villages and massacred inhabitants. Whole villages were sacked and their inhabitants all murdered,” writes Yegar in his thesis.

Later, it was the turn of the Muslims to take revenge and mete out similar punishment to Buddhists living in the north, forcing the Buddhist Rakhine to flee south. Serious communal violence and massacres took place in 1942 and 1943, leaving a legacy of bitterness that still lingers.

“It was in this manner that Arakan became divided into two separate areas, one Buddhist and the other Muslim,” according to Yegar.

The British, who planned to re-enter Burma from India, armed the Chittagonians in the Mayu Frontier Area to counter the Japanese forces. This newly armed group was called simply the “Volunteer Force” or “V Force.” Its members were to collect information about the movements of the Japanese and to launch guerrilla attacks against them.

Instability, lawlessness and terror were the order of the day in Rakhine State at that time. Ethnic Rakhines alleged that members of the V Force committed attacks against Rakhine villages and destroyed Buddhist temples.

Then, after the war, and after Myanmar regained its independence from Britain, Rakhine faced a new threat—the Mujahid rebellion. Although this was an Islamist movement, some communists and Rakhine rebels joined forces with the Mujahids, after reaching an agreement with them to split Rakhine once the government of Prime Minister U Nu had been defeated.

Under U Nu, several military campaigns (most famously, “Operation Monsoon”) were launched to push out the Mujahids. The final assault, led by then Brig-Gen Aung Gyi, who recently passed away in Yangon, came in 1961. According to Rakhine academics, the goal of the rebellion had been to create a separate Muslim state to be known as “Arakistan.”

Throughout the 1950s, there was also a campaign by the Rohingya to have the northern part of Rakhine State declared an autonomous region, directly administered by the central government in Yangon and without any involvement with Rakhine officials or any Rakhine influence whatsoever.

There was also a corresponding campaign to deny Rakhine statehood. According to Yegar: “In July 1961, the Rohinga [sic] Youth Association held a meeting in Rangoon [to call on] the government of U Nu not to grant the status of state to Arakan because community tensions still existed between Muslims and Buddhists since the 1942 riots.”

The government subsequently set up the Mayu Frontier Association (MFA), which was administered by army officers, but not granted autonomy. Since it was not placed under Rakhine jurisdiction, however, the arrangement was accepted by Rohingya leaders.

However, the issue of the status of the Rohingya and demands for Muslim autonomy did not die down. This did not go down well with the Rakhine, who suspected that the Bengalis—as they continue to call the Rohingya—wanted to annex the MFA to then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

Rakhine scholars have long argued that the term “Rohingya” only entered mainstream Myanmar political discourse in the 1950s. However, Western scholars and early foreign travelers to Myanmar have said that the name has existed at least since the 19th century.

In any case, by the 1960s, it was, in one form or another, generally accepted as the designation for the Muslims of northern Rakhine State. Yegar cites this passage from the May 1960 issue of the Yangon-based Guardian Monthly as evidence of its entry into common parlance: “Today, the Arakanese Muslims call themselves Rohinga or Roewengyah.”

The Rohingya issue and conflict in Rakhine State will not go away easily. It is a well-known fact that Myanmar’s Muslims suffer discrimination, and that the Rohingya are particularly persecuted.

Since there has been no real effort to integrate the Muslim population, including the Rohingya or Bengalis, into mainstream Myanmar society, it seems almost certain that sectarian violence will continue to plague the country’s western gate.

Critics of the government say that it needs to revisit Myanmar’s citizenship laws and immigration policies to deter an influx of migrants from neighboring countries. It could begin by studying the refugee and asylum policies of other nations. But above all, it must rely on rule of law, rather than force, to restore order along Myanmar’s western frontier. Failure to address this issue properly could deal a devastating blow to this country’s hard-won progress in opening to the outside world.

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.