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Myanmar’s Religious and Ethnic Tensions Begin to Spread Across the Region

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 14, 2013

A Muslim woman cries in a monastery used to shelter internally displaced people after a riot between Muslims and Buddhists in Lashio township on May 30, 2013. A Muslim woman cries in a monastery used to shelter internally displaced people after a riot between Muslims and Buddhists in Lashio township on May 30, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

For decades, during the rule of the military junta, Myanmar’s numerous internal problems spilled over its borders, sewing chaos along the frontiers with India,Thailand,China, and Bangladesh. Myanmar’s narcotics producers flooded Thailand and other countries with methamphetamines and heroin, Myanmar’s numerous civil wars sent hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into Thailand and Bangladesh and created a profitable cross-border illegal arms trade in India, and Myanmar’s combination of rape as a weapon of war and massive migration created some of the most virulent strains of HIV/AIDS in Asia, which then spread into China and Thailand.

With the reforms in Myanmar since 2010, there has been considerable hope among the country’s neighbors that political change also would reduce the burdens Myanmar’s serious domestic problems placed on them. Thailand hopes to send back thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants, and to be able to better cooperate with the Myanmar government in shutting down drug production in Myanmar’s wild northeast.  China hopes that the cease-fire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar government – seemingly the most stable cease-fire with the KIA in decades – will decrease migration into China and keep China from having to play a larger role in the KIA-Myanmar dispute. Overall, the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has hoped that, with Myanmar no longer a pariah, it will be easier for the group to reach consensus on regional issues, and ASEAN will be able to punch at a higher weight internationally.

Yet in some ways, the reverse of these aspirations is happening. The cease-fire in Kachin State is a clear step forward. But Myanmar’s inter-religious violence, which seemed confined to Rakhine State last year, now is spreading across the country, even to places, such as Lashio in Shan State, in which there have been few Muslim-Buddhist clashes in modern history and where there are few Muslims living anyway. And now the violence is spreading to other countries in the region, sucking them into Myanmar’s battles; they already are being sucked in by the outflow of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State. In the past two weeks, at least eight people have been killed in Malaysia. Buddhist and Muslims from Myanmar have begun attacking each other in Kuala Lumpur. (There are hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar living in Malaysia, mostly doing low-paying labor.) This comes just after violence between Myanmar Buddhist and Muslim refugees in Indonesia resulted in several deaths.

Yet, just as on the issue of how to handle Rohingya refugees, on the broader problem ofMyanmar’s spiraling inter-religious conflict, ASEAN is almost nowhere to be seen. Other than Indonesia, most ASEAN members have not been proactive in trying to help Myanmar tamp down tensions, and the region has no coherent plan for addressing the Rohingya “boat people” turning up in Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere.

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