You Can't Always Pick The Bad Guys In Burma


Rakhine State in western Burma gets among the highest rainfall in the world, with most of that falling between June and September. It’s not a pleasant time of year to be without a roof over your head.

But that’s the reality for more than 30,000 people from Burma’s Rohingya community, following a week of sectarian violence that also claimed at least 50 lives, according to Burmese state media.

A mostly forgotten corner of the world, Rakhine State has become a major geostrategic pivot point in recent years. Located at the fringe of both Southeast Asia and South Asia, its large reserves of offshore natural gas are coveted by China, India and Bangladesh. The Chinese controversially won that arm wrestle, securing a concession from the previous government to buy the gas, and are pushing ahead with a deep sea port and oil and gas pipelines to Kunming in Yunnan Province. A high-speed rail link to southern China has also been proposed.

But it is this location that has also given rise to the recent unrest: dominated by the Rakhine, one of Burma’s eight main ethnic groups, Rakhine State’s northern region is also home to about 800,000 Rohingya, a Muslim group that speak a dialect of Bengali. Characterised by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the Rohingya — known inside Burma as Bengali Muslims — are not recognised as one of the country’s official ethnic groups and mostly lack citizenship documents. Bangladesh refuses to accept them, and many Rohingya flee persecution in Burma for Malaysia, where they can apply for refugee status. A few have even wound up on Australia’s shores via Indonesia as asylum seekers.

In short, Rakhine State is an ethnographic tinderbox just waiting for a spark.

That spark came with the rape and murder of a young Rakhine woman on 28 May, allegedly by three Rohingya men. In retaliation, a mob of Rakhine killed 10 Muslims — Burmese Muslims, not Rohingya — as they returned from a pilgrimage in the southern part of the state on 3 June.

It appears that tensions escalated after the government failed to properly respond to the second incident, leading to riots in the state capital Sittwe. By 7 June, armed mobs on both sides took to the streets seeking retribution. Many homes in the town of about 200,000 were burned to the ground, while nearby villages were also razed. Poor communication and transport make it hard to get an accurate picture of conditions in the northern communities of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, not far from the Bangladesh border, where most Rohingya live. However, United Nations agencies and international non-government organisations were concerned enough by the violence to pull out their staff on 12 June.

While much good news has emanated from Burma over the past year, last week’s sectarian violence put it back on the front page for the wrong reasons. The International Herald Tribune ran a large photo of a man with a machete watching a home burn to the ground. Many journalists also focused on the ugly outpouring of anti-Rohingya sentiment online, which prompted protests inside the country that reporting in foreign media was biased towards the Rohingya. Rather than being representative of the views of most Burmese, these comments likely reflect the fact that the internet and online debate is a relatively new phenomenon in Burma. While I won’t reproduce some of the more extreme comments, this article on the Australian National University-run blog New Mandala gives a sanitised sense of some of the heated exchanges that have been taking place.

Calm appears to have returned to Rakhine State but the unrest is a reality check for those who assumed that Burma’s transition to democracy would be relatively smooth now that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is on board. It’s also a reminder that some of the old divisions in Burmese society have not been affected by the handover from military to quasi-civilian rule.

But whereas in the past it was always easy to pick out the bad guys — the military junta, of course — the violence in Rakhine State was a much more complex and murky affair, with hints of other forces playing a role behind the scenes.

Conspiracy theories have abounded; internationally, it was that the military was inciting the riots either to strengthen its role in national politics or damage Aung San Suu Kyi’s image, while here in Rangoon many pointed to a Rohingya plot to win international sympathy and, hopefully, Burmese citizenship.

Others questioned the role of some members of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. These conspiracy theories, as well as the extreme views that proliferated online, were fuelled by the fact that much of the first-hand information coming from the region was difficult to verify and carried suspicions of bias.

It seems unlikely that there was much coordination involved on anybody’s part. More likely, it was just opportunistic expressions of frustration by extreme elements on both sides. While the government has mostly handled the situation well — President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the region on 10 June in a measured address to the nation — it must accept some responsibility for not responding quickly enough to the murder of the 10 Muslims on 3 June.

Additionally, some reporting in state media appears to have inflamed tensions.

Patronising comments from some foreign commentators and organisations have also been unhelpful. While many Burmese abhor the violence and the hateful exchanges that have taken place, there is also a feeling that Burma is being unfairly pressured by the international community into accepting Rohingya as Burmese citizens. It’s too easy to simply dismiss Burmese as racist.

A well-known group of student activists — people who have spent many years in prison because of their opposition to the military government — caused a stir when, while calling for an end to the violence in Rakhine State, they stated their belief that Rohingya are not Burmese citizens. Some of them even warned the same foreigners who lobbied for their release for years, such as Burma Campaign UK, not to meddle in Burma’s internal affairs after they appeared to side with the Rohingya in public statements.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been mostly silent on the issue, except to say that in any society the majority should respect the rights of the minority and that the violence highlights the need for "rule of law". Privately, I’m told, her views on the Rohingya reflect those of most Burmese.

Unfortunately, this debate over citizenship distracts from what I see as the real issue: the long-running persecution of the Rohingya and the failure of the Rakhine and Rohingya communities to co-exist peacefully (communal violence has broken out regularly since the 1940s). It also risks escalating tensions further by highlighting the differences between the Rohingya and other "Burmese" ethnic groups, such as Burmese Muslims, rather than the things they have in common.

Charting a path forward for the two communities will be difficult. It is promising, though, that public comments from government ministers and officials, including President Thein Sein, have been among the most reasonable and least inflammatory. With Burmese society more open than at any time in decades, there is a chance that, from the ashes of this recent tragedy, a new and more tolerant conversation about national identity and rights can emerge.

The International Crisis Group on 12 June made some sound recommendations on steps the government could take to defuse tensions and begin building trust between the two communities. Unless the Rohingya can be integrated into Burmese society in a way that is acceptable for all sides, including the Rakhine, this won’t be the last time that we see outbreaks of communal violence in Burma.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.