Myanmar: Violence in Rakhine State and a Way Forward

31 Oct, 2014    ·   4720

Aparupa Bhattacherjee presents a reading of the recent ICG report, “Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State”

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

The International Crisis Group (ICG) published a comprehensive report on the ongoing ethno-political and communal violence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar in October 2014, titled, “Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State.”

There are four specific issues that the report has highlighted that ask for a more detailed discussion.

Buddhist Suspicions: Towards the Government or Domestic Muslims?
The report states that the Rakhines were initially suspicious of the centre due to their geographical and political isolation. However this fear and suspicion against Naypyidaw has slowly been re-directed towards the significant number of Muslims in Rakhine state. In order to substantiate its argument, four points are highlighted as the reasons for this shift.

The high birth rate among the Muslims, fear of Muslims forming an autonomous region, perception of economic deprivation among the Buddhists, and the distinctive socio-cultural divide between the religious communities further enlarges the rift. However these factors fail to explain the reason for the shift in fear and suspicion that was initially towards the centre and is currently aimed at Muslims within the state.

However, these reasons are debatable. The high birth rate among the Rakhine Muslims is surely not a new phenomenon - the increasing number of migrations could instead be one of the reasons for the increasing number of Muslims in the state. The point on economic deprivation could be questioned because Muslims dominance in small trades both in Rakhine state and other parts of Myanmar is not new. Even historically most of the Muslims who settled in Myanmar were traders. Furthermore as mentioned by the report most of the bigger trade is controlled by cronies and ex-military leaders. Why then is anger not directed towards the government instead of the Muslim community - after all, the government is the real cause for the state’s poverty and economic underdevelopment.

Socio-Economic Changes
The report talks about a new socio-political backdrop that is helping the rift to thrive. However the report seems to have overlooked other changes that also play significant roles in aggravating the rift between the two communities to an unprecedented level of violence. The partial withdrawal of censorship on the media on 2011 is one reason. The media has become an avenue for the propagation of both negative and positive sentiments in society. Also, the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) sweeping victory in both 1990 and 2010 has led those in the opposition to attempt to widen the rift for their own political gains. Thus the centre’s change of heart towards the Rakhines, especially the Buddhists, who are not only in the majority but are also a bigger vote bank. In this new game, the political elite have allied with the Rakhine Buddhists while politically marginalising the Muslims.

Muslim Disenfranchisement?
The word Rohingya, as stated in the report, is more than an identity for the northern Rakhine Muslims. Most ‘Rohingya’ Muslims insist on this identification because they hope that if recognised as an indigenous group, it would allow them to be eligible for full citizenship. Full citizenship will enable them to attain all basic freedoms including enfranchisement. However the report has contradicted its own argument by stating that full citizenship may not necessarily entitle a person full freedom. It also provides the example of the Kaman Muslims, who although eligible for full citizenship face the same discrimination as the Rohingya Muslims only due on the basis of their religion.

Is there a Way Forward?
Although the report analyses whether international Islamic radicalisation will have an impact on the Rohingya, it does not look at the growth and impact of radical Buddhism on the Rakhine Buddhists. This could have been explored further in the section titled “The Way Forward.” The report talks about how the problem requires a political solution and must therefore be dealt with in a holistic manner, rather than a narrow focus like the “Rakhine State Action Plan.” Along with this political solution, civil society initiatives are also very important, since both political and social factors have come together to result in the present tensions.