In a recent blog post for Asia Unbound, I noted that among Myanmar’s many challenges in the reform process, the country faced the possibility that political opening would unleash ethnic and religious tensions that had been, to some extent, held in check by many long years of harsh authoritarian rule. In the past week, we have seen some of these tensions explode in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The Irrawaddy today reported that the death toll has now passed twenty in the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State, and that some 1,600 houses have been burned down throughout the state. The killing started last week, with its origins still sketchy, but it certainly does not help that both state media and even some liberal, pro-democracy Burmese, have described Rohingya Muslims as “terrorists,” blamed them for all the violence, and simply called on them to adapt to Buddhist-dominated social mores or leave the country. And the Burmese government has for years refused to accept the Rohingya as Burmese even though they have lived in the country for generations.
Just as bad is that the government of President Thein Sein cannot declare a state of emergency and put more power in the hands of local forces, as it did this past week, without potentially sabotaging the entire reform effort. The clashes in Rakhine State remain a local and isolated affair —though there have been protests in other parts of the country over rising prices and other issues— but the issue of giving the security forces more power concerns the entire reform effort. Can Thein Sein hand over more power to the security forces, thus giving the military control of all administrative functions in Rakhine State, without potentially compromising his own fragile position in helping spearhead reforms? Can he really trust that security forces which, for decades, have responded to any protests or unrest with only one method —brutal force— are not going to respond that way now, potentially inflaming the problem in Rakhine State and even helping it to spread? Can he assume that regional commanders will even listen to his orders, given that they appear not to be doing so regarding the conflict in Kachin State? Thein Sein’s position has always been fragile, and the situation in Rakhine State is only going to make it more tenuous.