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More on the Strife in Rakhine State

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 30, 2012

Muslim children collect water at a refugee camp for those displaced by violence earlier this year outside Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 30, 2012. Muslim children collect water at a refugee camp for those displaced by violence outside Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 30, 2012 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)..

While we on the East Coast of the United States get battered by the hurricane, reports suggest that the most recent wave of strife in Rakhine State has cooled, at least temporarily. The Irrawaddy reports that at least 22,000 people have been displaced by the most recent conflict in Rakhine State, according to the UN, but that calm has been restored for now, albeit with a significantly larger presence of security forces on the streets of major towns and cities in the state, including 5,000 more police and at least 1,000 more border security forces.

Although it is certainly good that some calm has been restored, no one believes that another explosion of violence will not occur soon in Rakhine State. Other than putting more police and border guards on the streets, the government has done little to address the underlying problems that are sparking unrest. In the short term, the government and other parties in parliament should consider these steps:

  • Stop resisting outside aid. Although letting in outside aid to Rakhine State in a significant way is obviously not popular with many Buddhists in Myanmar, this step is critical to helping with refugee flows, feeding people, and rebuilding homes. Allowing the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to establish an office, and letting in money for Rakhine State from major Muslim donors like Saudi Arabia, would be an important start. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also could play a significant role, through Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who is a Muslim and highly respected in the region.
  • Keep the security forces away from rebuilding and rehabilitation as much as possible. The Irrawaddy and multiple other sources report that the security forces are closely involved in whatever rebuilding and moving of people is going on in Rakhine State. Given the horrendous history of Myanmar’s security forces being involved in forced relocation, and its limited knowledge and capacity for development work, the security forces should be kept away from rebuilding  —especially since many Muslims in Rakhine State suspect security forces of helping instigate rioting.
  • Work with the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party on a public posture on these ethnic clashes. In this case, President Thein Sein actually has been more open and forthright about the problems in Rakhine State than the NLD leadership has. Some NLD supporters insist that, since the NLD is not running the country (at least not right now), it does not need to have a position on the Rakhine violence. But even if it is not directly making policy now, the party cannot claim to be the future leaders of the country, as well as an open and progressive party, with no policy on the ethnic violence.
  • Work more closely with Bangladesh. Although Bangladesh does not want to take in Muslims from Rakhine State, the violence is already potentially seeping across the border, so peace and some short-term solution in Rakhine State is in Bangladesh’s interest as well.

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