from Asia Unbound

Western Myanmar Conflict About to Heat up Again

August 14, 2013

Rohingya men who were shot by the police during a riot on Friday rest in Dapaing district clinic, outside of Sittwe, on August...third time in two months, reviving tensions in a region beset by religious violence last year. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)
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Over the past week, several violent incidents have erupted again in Rakhine (or Arakan) State in western Myanmar, including riots last Friday in which police shot at crowds of Rohingya men and women, killing at least one person, although the death toll remains unclear. This is the at least the third time in the past two months that police have used live fire on crowds of Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Although conflict in the Rakhine State never totally ebbed after the eruption of clashes between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year, which led to over 140,000 people—mostly Muslim Rohingya—fleeing to become refugees or IDPs, it seemed to have calmed down somewhat earlier this summer. However, that peace was illusory, for several reasons, and more serious conflict is likely to erupt in Rakhine State. For one, despite winning global praise as a reformer—and despite his own moderate and reasonable comments on how to address citizenship and ethnicity claims in Rakhine State—the government of President Thein Sein created a resettlement plan for internally displaced people from Rakhine State that perpetuates discrimination against Muslim Rohingya by refusing to allow them Myanmar citizenship and forcing them to identify as migrants from another country.

The resettlement plan, perhaps more than any other action by the government in the past year, has infuriated Rohingya, who have lashed out with violence. Last year, it was primarily Buddhists in Rakhine State initiating the violence; now both Buddhists and Muslims are launching episodes of violence, leading to the possibility of more pitched clashes this year. The Myanmar government also has not disciplined police officers who have repeatedly used excessive force, including live ammunition, on Rohingya, and who also repeatedly have looked the other way when Buddhists have attacked Muslims in the Rakhine State.

In addition, swirling rumors and reports of enormous possible mineral resources in Rakhine State are adding to land grabs and refusals to allow Rohingya to remain in the state and return to their homes. The exact extent of resources in Rakhine State remains unclear, but it has vast virgin forests, a major oil and gas pipeline, significant offshore and onshore petroleum resources, and many other resources.

The whirlwind of mineral resources rumors in Myanmar, including in Rakhine State, is captured well in a new Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation report, Creating a Future: Using Natural Resources for New Federalism and Unity. Longtime Myanmar expert David Dapice, in the report, notes that natural resources do, and will continue to, play an outsized role in the Myanmar economy, as compared to many of its neighbors. Without any federal structure to apportion the monies made from resources, there will continue to be enormous local anger at the federal government, which currently is making major decisions about resources development, as well as increasingly intense land grabs in places like Rakhine State where there is no locally-accepted solution to resources that cuts locals into the money being made off their resources. And so the situation only gets more dangerous as summer drags on in Western Myanmar.