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On Friday, June 8 2012 violence broke out in Western Myanmar (also known as Burma) leading to days of ethnic and religious violence including knife attacks and rioting. According to Reuters and MSNBC as of Monday 21 have died, another 21 have been wounded, and 1,662 houses have been burned to the ground. At least 4,100 people have lost their homes and are taking up refuge in schools and Buddhist monasteries.
The Western state of Rakhine is home to the majority religion group the Rakhine Buddhists and the minority group, Rohingya Muslims. The tension has been building for years as the Buddhists and the Muslims have different ethnic, religious, and cultural ties. The former military government has also persecuted the Rohingya Muslims for many years.
According to the UN the Rakhine state – this distraught region of Myanmar – is one of the most discriminating areas in the world. Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, claimed, “the underlying tensions that stem from discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities pose a threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition and stability.”
President Thein Sein has also admitted, “what is currently happening in the Rakhine state is about putting grievances, hatred, and desire for revenge at the forefront, based on racial and religious grounds, and that’s why anarchic actions are becoming widespread.”
The recent violence began after three Muslims were arrested in relation to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. A few days later, on June 3, a mob attacked a bus and lynched ten Muslims who were unrelated to the case. The Buddhists are also worried about the Rohingyas taking the jobs in the area where employment is scarce.
The rioting originally broke out in the city of Maungdaw on June 8, but quickly spread to the neighboring towns and cities including the state capital city of Sittwe.
During the violence on June 11, the United Nations pulled out 44 of 150 members of its staff in the western region of Myanmar. Ashok Nigam, the UN’s resident and human coordinator in Yangon – Myanmar’s largest city – stated that the relocation was a precaution for the safety of its staff.
Mohammad Sadek of Malaysia’s Rohingya Arakanese Refugee Committee stated, “We are trying to call on the international community, especially the UN, to send peacekeeping forces to mediate. Thousands of Rohingya are displaced, the wounded can’t get medication, it’s a crisis.”
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the coastal region of the Rakhine state Sunday, June 10. Police were forced to fire shots into the air on Tuesday June 12 in order to disperse a rioting Rohingya group that was burning houses in Sittwe. As of the following day, there were soldiers patrolling the streets of Sittwe preventing individuals from carrying weapons and setting fire to houses.
Soldiers are also helping groups of Rohingya Muslims escape from Sittwe to Thae Chaung village since many individuals’ houses have burned down. The presence of soldiers in Sittwe seems to be calming the violence and residents since, according to Reuters’ reporters, more people are leaving their homes.
The 800,000 Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar claim to be from the Rakhine region but they have been persecuted by the Myanmar government for years and are still not recognized as citizens, according to the United Nations. Instead the Myanmar government claims the Rohingya Muslims are from Bangladesh and are illegal immigrants; however, the Bangladesh government will not accept them as citizens either. During the 1990s around 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape the persecution of the Myanmar government. The Bangladesh government eventually stopped letting the Rohingyas into the country in 1992.
Recently three boats carrying about one thousand Rohingya Muslims tried to enter Bangladesh to flee the current violence but were turned away. Around thirty Rohingyas actually managed to enter Bangladesh ten of whom were injured in the rioting violence in Myanmar and are being treated.
In the past year or so Myanmar has been working to end decades of military rule and economic isolation; however these riots and other recent conflicts have somewhat stalled its efforts. There have been several protests over recent months due to power cuts and workers have also blocked access to twelve mines in Mandalay Division because of bad labor conditions and job cuts.
The military junta in Myanmar ruled the country for decades and heavily supported the ethnic majority of Burmans over the minority groups in the country. According to Jan Zalewski, a South Asia analyst with IHD Global Insight based in London, “the rest, the non-Burmans, were pretty much persecuted.” Zalewski also suggests a reason for the recent protests and violence during these government reforms. “As you reform and open up the media, people have an opportunity to vent their anger over everything that’s sitting quite deep. So you increase the polarization between groups.”
President Sein was elected with the backing of the military but he has worked to get rid of many of the former, oppressive policies and has worked toward the pro-democracy movement advocated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former political prisoner Auug San Suu Kyi. Myanmar’s government over the past year has released political prisoners, held free elections, and signed peace deals with rebel minority groups; several Western governments that have previously left Myanmar in economic isolation have relaxed economic sanctions with these changes.
Some have been worried that the government will use this outbreak of violence as an excuse to tighten control again. However the European Union announced that it was ‘satisfied’ with the response by the Myanmar government, possibly implying that they believe the government has not overstepped its bounds during this crisis.
The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton also made a statement saying, “We urge the people of Burma to work together toward a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country that respects the rights of all its diverse people.”
Although the violence seems to be calming, the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental research organization, warns, “How the government handles this case will be a major test of the police and courts in a country that has just begun to emerge from an authoritarian past. It will also test the government’s will and capacity to reverse a longstanding policy of discrimination toward the Muslim Rohingya.”