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Myanmar’s Ethnic Violence

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 12, 2012

An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he stands in front of a house that was burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe. An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he stands in front of a house that was burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe (Staff/Courtesy Reuters).

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.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    S/M

    It is essential that the West nmake every effort to democratize Burma.

    As rate at which China is developing the West has about ten years to accomplish this task.

    If one considers the Philippines affair the union of Burma together with the other ASAEN nations will complete the encirclement of China.

    Recent chatter might suggest that Russia and China wont to become friends but I think such a union most unlikely as Russia has to keep control of its lands east of the Urals lest we have more Chinese ‘ immigration’ into that area.

    Were China to reverse it’s decision re. Iran a general lessening of encirclement might appear to unfold.

    China must know by now that Russia will remain a lost cause until Putin dies or is killed and is destined to remain a failed social state.

    For China to continue and achieve its place in history is to side [ obviously ] with the West …….and Burma could be the starting point of its potential mgreatness along with Iran……..bob

  • Posted by Robert Veilis

    I believe that the west or any outside country can do much to help President Thein Sein in developing an oriental democracy, by helping carry out the military/police responsibilities that the security forces once carried out with force, without a power stand.

  • Posted by Ohn

    “an oriental democracy”

    Cute!

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