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Under Fire: The Savage Persecution of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
December 8, 2012
The National

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Until this year, Arakan, a state in south-western Myanmar, remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Its stunning waterfront towns, with coastal attractions such as Ngapali Beach, the equal of famous resorts like Phuket or Langkawi, remained virtually empty, except for a few rickety wooden fishing boats setting off into the ocean to trawl with handmade nets for the abundant local fish. On a recent afternoon, a few European tourists sunbathed on Ngapali's long stretches of white sand, or dipped their bodies into the warm water. The Arakan State capital, Sittwe, set on an estuarial island, held nearly 200,000 inhabitants but still resembled a tiny fishing village, with few buildings rising higher than three storeys, intermittent electricity, and a slow pace of life that revolved around whatever the fishermen were bringing to port that day.

But in the past six months, Arakan State has become a global news story. Rioting between Buddhists, known primarily as Rakhines, and Muslims living there, known locally as Rohingya, has devastated much of the state. In the past six months, more than 100,000 have fled their homes due to the fighting, winding up in squalid refugee camps where UN agencies are struggling to combat extreme malnutrition, malaria and other illnesses. More than 5,000 homes have been torched across the state by mobs of both Muslims and Buddhists, while at least 200 have been killed since the violence started earlier this year, according to local human rights organisations. The United Nations says that although some Buddhists have fled their homes, more than 95 per cent of the displaced people are Rohingya Muslims.

The violence appears to be getting worse. In the past month, the pace and brutality of attacks by both sides have increased, and in one week in October, mobs of Rakhines surrounded several villages, according to press reports. Using swords and knives, they killed at least 50 Rohingya, and then held huge parties in several parts of the state. "This is the best time because there are no Muslims here," one Buddhist man told Reuters after mobs forced the Rohingya Muslims out of his village.

The violence in Arakan State points to larger problems in Myanmar. Over the past two years, since the transition began from military to civilian government, Myanmar has embarked on dramatic political, social and economic reforms.

A country once known as one of the most repressive in the world is now being touted by western nations, and its own reformers, as a budding democracy. Longtime pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest, and she and her party swept by-elections held earlier in the year, giving her a seat in parliament for the first time and preparing the way for 2015 national elections, which her party expects to win. Myanmar's president, a former army general named Thein Sein, is being promoted as a possible Nobel Peace laureate, and received a visit last month from US President Barack Obama, the first sitting American head of state to travel to the country. Previously, the US and most other western democracies had shunned Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

But the chaos in Arakan State reveals that Myanmar's transition is not without serious problems. The loosening of controls by the government is allowing long-repressed ethnic hatred to emerge. Indeed, the fragile transition could easily spiral into all-out civil war, or possibly a renewed military takeover. The end of absolute military rule has led to a revival of inter-ethnic strife that threatens to consume Arakan State and several other parts of the country, one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.

In a report released in November, the respected International Crisis Group (ICG) noted: "The violence in [Arakan] state quickly reverberated throughout the country. Muslims cancelled public celebrations of Eid Al Adha … and on the following day hand grenades were thrown at two mosques in Karen State's Kawkareik township," in the east of the country, hundreds of kilometres from Arakan State. "This is a dangerous situation for a multiethnic and multireligious country that aspires to be a democracy after decades of isolation and authoritarian rule." In addition, Myanmar's army, which had ruled the country for nearly 50 years before 2010, appears to be either helping to trigger the violence in Arakan or allowing it to happen, in order to have a pretext for it to remain in control of the state, and possibly in control of other parts of the country.

According to the ICG, the senior military commander for the state has admitted that some of those involved in the riots might be trying to stop the broader political reforms going on in the country by turning communities against each other. Myanmar's president appears to have little ability to control his regional commanders in Arakan State, which bodes poorly for long-term civilianisation of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, the democratic opposition, led by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has said little about the violence in Arakan State.

In recent weeks, Suu Kyi has called for more troops to be sent to the state to restore order, even though it is possible that the army is involved in creating the violent situation. Many of Suu Kyi's liberal allies in her National League for Democracy party, including Buddhist monks and activists who themselves spent years in prison during military rule, have unleashed racist, xenophobic invective against Muslims in Arakan State. The 8888 democracy movement, a group of Burmese activists who came of age during massive protests in 1988, recently released a statement saying, "Rohingya [Muslims] are not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all … genetically, culturally, and linguistically [these] Rohingya are not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar."

None of Myanmar's neighbours seem to care about the violence and ethnic cleansing in Arakan State, either. Bangladesh has refused to allow in most of the Muslims fleeing Arakan State, while the regional organisation, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), has been quiet on the topic. And every day, more and more Muslims in Arakan State try to choose from the best of bad options: stay in their homes and risk being knifed or burnt to death; get on a rickety ship and try to flee to Malaysia, where some refugees have been taken in, and in doing so risk drowning or being attacked by Thai pirates; or try to enter Bangladesh illegally to get into refugee camps, which are regarded by UN workers as the most squalid and dangerous in the world. Bangladesh police also try to push the Rohingya back into Myanmar, since Bangladesh, already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, does not want any more people. "It's a terrible situation if your greatest hope is to get to some fetid camp in Bangladesh," said one US State Department official.

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The exact spark for these months of violence in Arakan State remains unclear. For several centuries, Muslims known as Rohingya have lived in western Myanmar, particularly in Arakan State, the second-poorest state in one of the poorest nations in the world; today there are roughly one million Rohingya in Myanmar, out of a total population of around 55 million. They originally came from Bengali-dominated areas of India and modern-day Bangladesh, but as they remained in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya started to blend culturally and linguistically (though not religiously) with local Buddhists, known as Rakhines. Tensions between the two groups always existed, but was mostly kept to a minimum during years of military rule in Myanmar. Many Rakhines still regard the Rohingya as "Bengalis", and not as true citizens of Myanmar. Conversely, most Rohingya, after living in Myanmar for generations, regard themselves as citizens of the country, despite a law passed in 1982, during the era of military rule, that stripped the Rohingya of citizenship.

Many people in Arakan State say that, about five months ago, three Rohingya men raped and murdered a Buddhist woman, a story that quickly spread by word of mouth. Other locals say that a fight broke out on a public bus between young Buddhists and Muslims, resulting in the death of several people. It is likely that the truth behind the first spark of the violence will never be known. But rumours of atrocities committed by Rohingya spread across Myanmar. Some of the major newspapers and internet sites exacerbated this anger by publishing unverified reports of Muslim attacks on Buddhists in Arakan State. Unlike during the years of military rule, when the army would simply shut down print outlets or internet sites, the increasing freedom of the media in Myanmar today means websites and newspapers can freely publish inflammatory and often unsourced information.

Shortly after these first reports, Buddhist Rakhines launched a massive campaign of intimidation, violence and outright ethnic cleansing against their Rohingya neighbours. Since some of the people involved in this campaign seemed to be already armed for battle and in contact with soldiers in the area, many Rohingya believe that the Buddhists had for months or years been organising the campaign, waiting for the right moment. Many of the Rakhine activists who initiated the violence had ties to the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, a local political party. Meanwhile, a group of monks active in Arakan State told the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio station, that people should target Rohingya Muslims and anyone sympathetic to them as "national traitors". The monks' organisation also helped distribute photos of Rohingya and people helping them in every town in Arakan State. Compared to the period of strict military rule, when almost all street demonstrations were banned, over the past two years the government has drastically loosened restrictions on public activities, so when mobs of protesters gathered in Arakan State, they argued that they should be allowed to demonstrate.

The demonstrations would highlight the new freedoms enjoyed in Myanmar, they said - even though they were to use this freedom to attack Rohingya villages and drive Rohingya into camps.

The president, Thein Sein, initially responded to the violence by calling for all Rohingya to be deported from Myanmar, though by the fall he softened that stance considerably. In August he called for a government committee to investigate the violence, and has at times obliquely suggested the Rohingya Muslims should be given citizenship, before backing off those claims.

Whatever the truth, the violence soon spiralled out of control. In the summer, gangs of Rakhines burned Rohingya homes and mosques throughout the state, and drove Rohingya out of their homes and villages. Some Rohingya gathered together their own armed groups to retaliate, but they are seriously outnumbered by Rakhines in the state, and by the autumn any Rohingya resistance had mostly vanished. Groups of Rakhines torched the Muslim area of one of the larger towns in Arakan State, Kyak Pyu, until there was almost nothing left, according to satellite photographs obtained by Human Rights Watch.

Buddhist vigilante groups attacked many other towns in Arakan State. In Pauktaw and Kyaukphyu townships this fall, vigilantes drove nearly every Rohingya family out, or held entire families in large groups against their will before massacring at least 35 with knives, swords and rudimentary guns. In early October, vigilante groups attacked Muslims in Sittwe, the state capital, forcing them into their homes and burning at least 11 alive.

By November, the killing had gotten even worse, forcing more and more Rohingya to abandon their homes and flee to refugee camps set up by UN agencies inside Arakan State, or try to reach Bangladesh in rickety boats. Many of the boats quickly sank - at least 100 Rohingya have drowned trying to flee in recent months. With many UN workers prevented from working in the camps, several of them are little more temporary shacks. In several cases, according to Myanmar sources, security forces have shot Rohingya who were fleeing their villages to get away from Rakhine gangs, though in other cases the security forces did effectively use tear gas and other non-lethal means to break up Rakhine mobs. Yet a Reuters investigation, released in early November, found that several massacres in October had been organised well in advance by local Rakhine leaders, and were wilfully ignored by the security forces; Rakhines attacked Rohingya homes and villages with homemade guns and Molotov cocktails.

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Despite the fact that the violence in Arakan State now is among the worst humanitarian crises in the world, it has been largely ignored by western and Middle Eastern policymakers. To be sure, this is partly because local Buddhist Rakhine groups have made it very hard for outsiders to try and observe or mediate the conflict. When the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tried this autumn to set up an office in Arakan State to distribute aid and monitor the conflict, angry groups of Rakhine Buddhists demonstrated, and the Myanmar government prevented the OIC from opening the office. Similarly, angry mobs have prevented aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders from operating effectively.

But while many Buddhist residents are resistant to outside pressure, the international community has not exactly taken a tough stand. Prior to arriving in Myanmar, Barack Obama offered only a warning that Myanmar still had many obstacles to overcome before making their transition and then warmly shook Thein Sein's hand and praised him, saying "I have confidence" in Thein Sein's ability to handle Myanmar's diversity and come to a fair solution. And Asean, which rarely intervenes in its own members' political affairs, has been relatively quiet as well, though its secretary-general, a Thai Muslim named Surin Pitsuwan, has pushed the organisation to take a bolder stance. Surin last month told reporters that the international community must pay closer attention to the Rohingya but also said that "it is for the UN and international institutions to come forward in this matter", and that Asean should not remain silent. However, he admitted that because the bloc does not intervene in its members' affairs, "We can help only if [the Myanmar government] agrees."

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The situation in Arakan State is tragic, but it is also illustrative of larger problems in Myanmar, as the country attempts to make a much more dramatic shift than post-apartheid South Africa or post-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe. Until two years ago, Myanmar was one of the most economically and politically isolated nations in the world; only North Korea and possibly Uzbekistan were more repressive. To shift to an open economy and a democratic system by 2015, the target date, is an enormously ambitious goal.

For one, the economic reforms being put into place may do little to help average people in Myanmar, leading to further inter-communal violence over scarce resources, as in Arakan State. Nearly every industrialised democracy that once imposed sanctions on Myanmar because of its harsh military rule and horrific rights abuses have dropped those sanctions in the past two years. Instead, many of those same countries are allocating large new aid packages to the country, encouraging their companies to invest, and reintroducing Myanmar to international financial institutions. Yet the majority of this western investment, at least initially, is going into the oil and gas sector, hardly known for its transparency or for broadly benefiting large numbers of locals. Some manufacturing and textile firms, of the kind that have powered broad-based growth in countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia, might be attracted to Myanmar's low labor costs, but the poor infrastructure will most likely keep the majority of companies away. These weaknesses could put transport costs in Myanmar on the level of the most expensive places in Africa. Arakan State, for one, expects to see little of the new investment coming in from the West and Japan. Already, desperation has enveloped it, according to many residents - fears that the investment and aid flowing into Myanmar will bypass rural areas such as Arakan State, leaving residents just as poor - and angrier - as before the reforms.

Meanwhile, the violence in Arakan State also suggests that, while the most senior generals in the old military regime may have retired, a younger generation of officers is not yet ready to cede power to civilians. Several close observers of parliament say that former senior general Than Shwe has seeded the ruling party with hardliners who will make sure that any reforms proposed by Thein Sein or Suu Kyi never get too far, too fast. If the Suu Kyi's NLD party were to win the 2015 election, these hardliners, through the military's seats in parliament, could hinder change or squash it completely. In addition, the constitution still gives the military the right to step back into power if it feels it is necessary, in the case of a national emergency, thus essentially offering the possibility of a coup at any time in the future. Than Shwe, Maung Aye and other senior officers retired with the massive assets - when Than Shwe's daughter married, in a lavish ceremony captured on YouTube, she wore around her neck giant necklaces of precious gems. Younger officers did not get a chance to amass significant assets before the transition. Instead, these middle-ranking officers may find themselves without a job, and without the access to government funds and natural resources deals that their superiors made before retiring. This could be yet another powder keg in the country's fractious transition. Angry that their superiors cashed in, these middle-ranking officers could easily see justification to stage a coup when there is even the pretext of mild unrest, similar to what is occurring in Arakan State.

What's more, though Aung San Suu Kyi may be a global icon, feted across Europe and the United States during two recent celebratory tours of the West, the violence in Arakan State reveals that she and her party are finding it difficult to make the transition from longtime dissidents to potential policymakers. Since they could well be running Myanmar within three years, this inability to shift is a serious problem; allies of Suu Kyi say she has been quiet on the Arakan violence in part because of her Burman support base, but also because she receives such poor, uninformed advice from her inner circle.

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There are solutions to the problems in Arakan State. To start with, both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi need to take a stronger stance on the Arakan situation, even if that proves unpopular with their core constituencies. For Thein Sein, asserting civilian control over the security forces and vigilantes in the state might anger many in the military. But the president also has earned the support of many younger, reform-minded officers, and he could utilise that support to push for a more nuanced, less violent approach, one that gives the Rohingya legal status that would make it easier for assistance to reach them, provides for the establishment of camps, and creates a future where the Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, can be citizens. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi, who is herself Burman and has strong support in the majority Burman community, also remains the most respected leader in the country, by all ethnic groups. She alone could propose a structure for a more federal Myanmar in which all ethnic and religious groups would have rights, as well as greater control over the resources in their local area. Her father, the Burmese independence hero Aung San, was on the verge of creating such a federal country when he was assassinated early in modern Burma's history by political rivals.

Outside countries, too, could play a role. Wealthy Arabian Gulf nations could help support rebuilding in Arakan State - Saudi Arabia has reportedly pledged US$50 million (Dh183.6m), though it is unclear whether the Myanmar government will accept that assistance. Though the priority should be to resettle Rohingya in Myanmar, Bangladesh should stop expelling Rohingya who flee across the border, and should make it easier for the UN to work with Rohingya coming into the country as well.

Finally, the Rohingya tragedy could be a chance for the West and the Muslim world, divided on so many issues - from Israel/Palestine to India/Pakistan - to work together constructively, providing assistance to the minority group and pressuring the Myanmar government to finally give them citizenship and allow them to return to their homes.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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