Sectarian Violence in Myanmar

Sectarian Violence in Myanmar

Intensification of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar

Recent Developments

Violence and tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities continue in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country in 2015, and the UN estimates that there are around 240,000 internally displaced people. 

While Myanmar’s first national election in more than twenty-five years took place in November 2015, and the pro-democracy Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party will claim a parliamentary majority, questions still remain about both the status of the Rohingya people, who were not allowed to vote in the election, and the future nature of the military’s relationship with its new civilian leadership. 

Background

The Rohingya, a highly persecuted Muslim group numbering over one million, face discrimination both from their neighbors and their nation, as they are not officially considered citizens by Myanmar’s government. Buddhist nationalist groups, including the 969 Movement—an anti-Muslim campaign led by Buddhist extremists—call for boycotts on Muslim shops and encourage attacks on Muslim communities, as well as the expulsion of Muslims from Myanmar. Since 2012, more than one hundred thousand Muslim Rohingyas have been made homeless and hundreds have been killed, after two waves of attacks in June and October of 2012 intensified the century-old conflict in the predominantly Buddhist country. 

The displacement of the Rohingya has significantly increased tension between Myanmar and its neighbors. Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state is sealed and heavily patrolled to prevent an influx of refugees, contributing to the increase of refugees who seek to flee by boat or who cluster in refugee camps, particularly those on the border with Thailand.

There is little indication that addressing the Rohingya issue will be a priority for Myanmar’s new government, as it works to establish a new relationship with the military and addresses multiple ongoing insurgencies. The military signed a cease-fire with several armed ethnic groups in October 2015, but several major groups—including two of the largest militias, the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army—continue to fight the central government. While the cease-fire agreement is a major step towards peace in Myanmar, it does not finalize a balance of power between the central government and the restive borderlands, or require ethnic groups to disarm, and ignores violence against the Rohingya people specifically.

Concerns

As the U.S.-Myanmar relationship warms, tensions over human rights issues will remain a divisive factor. However, Myanmar’s stability is increasingly important to U.S. interests given Myanmar’s geostrategic importance in Southeast Asia, vast natural resources, and emerging functional democratic government. 

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