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Fighting in Burma’s Western state of Rakhine has left thousands of houses burnt down and an estimated 64 dead according to the Burmese government.
The victims were mostly Muslim Rohingya and satellite pictures released by Human Rights Watch show entire districts razed to the ground.
This recent rise in violence is but the latest in a long running civil war that has been ongoing since the country gained its independence from British rule in 1948. Shortly following Burma’s independence, the Burmese government, which mainly consists of Bamar people who make up two thirds of the population of Burma, created the Burmese constitution denying ethnic minorities constitutional rights or participation in government.
There are a total of 135 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Burmese government as well as several unrecognized groups, the most notable of these being the Rohingya.
The exclusion of ethnic minorities from government is one the main reasons behind the civil war in Burma with many groups, such as the Shan and Chin people, having formed militias to fight for autonomy in their home areas as well as power in the decision-making process of the whole country.
The fighting has not solely been over ethnic minorities struggling to gain the power and rights they believe they deserve. The civil war is also being fought because, according to Burma Campaign UK the “Burman dominated governments see their own race, culture and religion as the best and have been trying to impose it on others”.
This is particularly true of the Muslim Rohingya who mostly live in Rakhine state, which has been the center of violence last week and also last June. Called “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world” by the UN the Rohingya are officially stateless and not recognized as citizens in the Burmese Constitution. Despite the fact that they have resided in the country for centuries, the Rohingya are viewed by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Thein Sein, the current president of Burma, has called the Rohingya a threat to national security and stated his willingness to hand 800,000 Rohingya over to the United Nations refugee agency to be settled in another country.
With the president of Burma publicly expressing such views, it adds credibility to remarks made by Tun Khin of the Burmese Rohingya organization in the UK, who claimed on channel 4 news that last weeks events were “proper planned by Rakhine National Democratic party” and that the state incited the local Muslim population to attack the Rohingya. This is confirmed by Burma Campaign UK who say “what has happened in recent months is clearly mainly instigated and implemented by Rakhine and Burman nationalists with a mixture of overt and tacit backing from the government.” The government also recognized that the violence was not spontaneous, saying in a press release “… there are persons and organizations who are conducting manipulation in the incidents in Rakhine State behind the scene”. However they could not be contacted for comment on the matter.
As well as inciting and backing violence against the Rohingya, the government could be guilty of failing to properly protect the Rohingya. This is certainly the view of Human Rights Watch who said,”In Arakan State, the Burmese government inadequately responded to the sectarian violence between the ethnic Arakan and Rohingya populations. When it finally did take action, state security forces targeted the minority Rohingya for killings, mass arrests and looting, causing massive displacement.”
These attacks by either the government or local population on the Rohingya people come shortly after the government made steps towards democracy with several small reforms. First was the release of human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after 15 years under house arrest. There was then the first elections after 49 years of military rule, even if the elections were widely regarded as being rigged. While these actions were a move in the right direction, these reforms have only distracted the international community from what is happening to the Rohingya.
Right now, the Rohingya are the only ones the government are targeting. But what happens when Thein Sein has successfully got rid of the Rohingya, will it stop there? The international community must wake up and realize that it is not just the Middle East that is in the midst of civil war. We cannot continue to pick and choose which countries we help, and which we ignore. The Libyans and Syrians are not the only ones being persecuted by their leaders, the world needs to hear what is happening to the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma and act to protect them.