Sectarian strife in western Myanmar

With the first flushes of democratisation and the tentative unraveling of Myanmar’s decades of military rule, let’s not kid ourselves, there are still many problems to resolve.

In early June 2012 we were confronted with the lacerations of violence pitting Buddhist Rakhine against Muslim Rohingya. While Myanmar’s old wounds fester – across the gamut of political, economic, social and cultural issues – new incisions have cut to the bone of a brittle body politic, still scarred by generations of hardship and horror. Big questions are raised by the fresh wounds in western Myanmar, where at least 90 people have been killed and around 90,000 displaced in recent spurts of sectarian violence. We want to know how bad the damage has been, whether the prognosis is bleak, and what remedies can be prescribed.

Introducing the violence that erupted only 3 months ago requires sensitivity to the competing interpretations of these events. Today, it is my task to briefly summarise the violence; providing a general framework for our discussions. I will, first, very briefly describe the recent violence in western Myanmar; second, highlight the broader social and demographic situation; third, explain the reception in the media and online; and fourth introduce a brief interpretation of the political and geopolitical ramifications.

First, there is a long history of communal disquiet in westernmost Myanmar. The catalysts for this most recent upsurge of violence are therefore not difficult to find. What is worth emphasising is that the spark in this round appears to have been a relatively simple, criminal matter: a rape and murder, followed by retribution killings. But in a system where the rule of law is notoriously thin, and where sectarian sentiments have been fanned by decades of authoritarian repression, this was sufficient cause for rampages and blood-letting. Accusation and counter-accusation have led Rohingya activists to claim that they are facing genocide.

Second, the Myanmar government is now staring down a humanitarian calamity alongside an awkward domestic and international political standoff that will not be resolved quickly. There are as many as 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, many of whom now fear for their future. Many seek to flee. Around 300,000 Rohingya are already in Bangladesh, and much smaller numbers have gone to Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are also some who have made their way to countries like Australia. Nonetheless the majority of Rohingya remain in western Myanmar, in Rakhine State, where their status as residents, let alone citizens, is heavily contested.

Third, the outbreak of violence in western Myanmar was followed by a spike in media and Internet commentary, much of which invoked a narrow range of hateful rhetoric. Under military rule, Myanmar was trundling right past the digital age. One of the outcomes of political reform has been an astonishing proliferation and liberalisation of the Internet. In June and July 2012, chat forums, newspaper comments pages and blogs, in both English and Burmese, were arenas for dueling vitriol. Indeed, one of the issues that has been overlooked in the rush to congratulate Myanmar’s rulers on their democratic footwork is the squabbles, new and old, that are being fertilised by this political system.

Fourth, many analysts wonder what the National League for Democracy and, in particular, its iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi really make of the violence. Aung San Suu Kyi has disappointed some of her allies with her silence. She has, in general, opted to avoid heavy discursive entanglements related to Myanmar’s ethnic issues. Some suggest she appreciates the electoral damage that a mis-step could cause, particularly if it alienated her Buddhist, Burman base. Others wonder whether her sympathy for ethnic minority political interests is more fragile than some had imagined.

Internationally, the violence in western Myanmar has met with mixed reactions. While there has been significant coverage and criticism by human rights advocates and elements of the western media, their outrage has not led to any palpable change in the policies of Western governments. I wonder whether allegations of Islamist sentiments among some Rohingya help to shape the international reception of this violence.

By contrast, in the Islamic world there has been dismay about the treatment of the Rohingya. From Morocco to Mumbai voices have been raised against President Thein Sein and his security forces. Among the Muslim-majority societies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations protests have come thick-and-fast. The Indonesian government has, for instance, postponed some interactions with their Myanmar counterparts, delaying planned investments from Indonesian state-owned enterprises.

To conclude, what you will hear today is that the recent violence in western Myanmar introduces new dynamics into the country’s social, political and geopolitical matrices. I suggest we take stock of these new dynamics to acknowledge that our old analytical and political frameworks do not necessarily help us understand Myanmar in 2012.

This is the edited text of a presentation made at “‘The western gate is broken’: Myanmar’s Rohingya problem”, an event held by the Department of Political and Social Change, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, on 27 September 2012. A podcast of the event is available here. The others speakers were Nick Cheesman, Obaidul Haque and Trevor Wilson.