Why is Western Burma Burning?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 15 June 2012

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?

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.”