x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Rohingya attacks stem from Myanmar's troubled history

Ending the violence against the Muslim minority in the former Burma ought to be a global concern.

For Buddhists and Muslims who coexist in Myanmar, the recent outbreak of communal violence in Arakan state is nothing new. The fear that many feel, however, is that this won't be the last time that these two communities are torn apart by strife.

The lack of rational and informed debate on this issue at the national and local levels can only fuel more tension and mistrust. Moreover, there are forces inside and outside Myanmar that want to exploit the situation. These elements have their own political agendas, and stand to gain if they can inflame the hatred and misunderstandings we have witnessed in recent months.

A report recently released by the New York-based Human Rights Watch concluded that the government and its troops failed to do enough to prevent riots that broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Arakan in June. It is estimated that 100,000 people have been displaced by the violence.

The report finds that Burmese armed forces stepped in to keep an uneasy peace, but elements of the security forces allowed attacks on Muslims or participated in the violence. "Inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda fanned the violence," the report added.

President Thein Sein, who has been commended by the international community for his reforms since taking power last year, warned in early June that the violence could derail the transition process by threatening Myanmar's stability and development. He said the strife was fuelled by religious and racial hatred that resulted in widespread anarchic activities.

Burmese authorities and the majority of Arakanese have repeatedly insisted that Rohingya don't belong in Myanmar. Burmese and Arakanese prefer to call them Bengali.

In a meeting with high-ranking UNHCR officials in Naypyidaw, Mr Thein Sein surprised many by saying that Myanmar would be willing to send Rohingya to other countries for resettlement because his country simply couldn't accept them. No doubt he received support from a majority of Burmese.

More recently, however, he has changed his tone. He recently told Voice of America that Myanmar would try to improve the education of Rohingya to ease tensions.

The government then allowed the UN special human rights envoy for Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, and Turkey's foreign minster, Ahmet Davutoglu, to visit the strife-torn region this month, and recently gave a green light to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to assist refugees in Arakan state.

The last time that the Rohingya were on the receiving end of such attacks was in December 1991, when Myanmar's former junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, drove as many as 30,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh.

The National League for Democracy had won a landslide electoral victory that the generals refused to acknowledge, and the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The junta wanted a way to distract domestic attention from its failings, and found it by going after Rohingya.

The recent violence took place two months after Ms Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in by-election. But she has received rare criticism when she dodged questions on violence in Arakan state. When she was travelling in Europe in June, she spoke about the lack of rule of law and citizenship issues. In Dublin, when asked if Rohingya should be granted Myanmar citizenship, Ms Suu Kyi replied: "I don't know."

Back in 1991, the international community, particularly the Muslim world, condemned the regime's actions. Islamic organisations and countries around the region and in the Middle East all voiced outrage. Prince Khaled Sultan Abdul Aziz, the commander of the Saudi contingent in the 1991 Gulf War, went to Dhaka, where he strongly recommended Desert Storm-like action against Myanmar.

This episode marks one of the low points in the history of Muslims living in Myanmar. But it also provides a glimpse into the complexity of the Rohingya issue, since the 1991 army campaign in Arakan state was actually supported by many Burmese Muslims who shared the view of Rohingya as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Since the last century, when Myanmar was under British occupation, there have been well-documented reports suggested that tensions between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslims Rohingya were high.

But the history of Muslims in Myanmar has not always been as fraught with conflict. Some historians believe that Muslims began to arrive in Myanmar in the 13th century. Burmese kings generally tolerated small Muslim communities settled in Myanmar. These Muslims spoke Burmese and dressed like Burmese, but they preserved their religion. Essentially, they were accepted because their communities were small and did not engage in efforts to convert Buddhists.

This prevailing attitude of mutual respect began to change, however, with the advent of British rule. Following the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824 to 1826), a large number of Indian immigrants began to arrive in southern Myanmar and Arakan state. The Muslim migration from neighbouring countries and the expansion of Islamic religious activities sparked a "clash of civilisations" in pre-independence Myanmar.

Things came to a head in the 1930s, when serious anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots broke out. The worst of these riots occurred in July 1938, when the publication of a book that allegedly insulted Buddhism provoked a backlash. The New Light of Burma, an influential newspaper, fanned the flames by calling for a boycott of Muslim shops. Even Buddhist monks played a very active role in the riots.

In spite of this history, Muslims born in Myanmar continued to play an important role in society. They were politicians, army officers (nowadays, Muslims and Christians are no longer given prominence in the armed forces), government servants, scholars and teachers.

Today, many Muslims feel that they still aren't fully accepted in Burmese society, even after demonstrating their loyalty to the nation. They complain that they are still regarded with suspicion and treated like second-class citizens.


Aung Zaw is founding editor of The Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand

Online: www.irrawaddy.org