Monday, August 21, 2017

An opportunity beckons after violence in Rakhine

A soldier in Rakhine State in late October. Photo: Kaung Htet A soldier in Rakhine State in late October. Photo: Kaung Htet

The violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in western Myanmar, which initially erupted in June, has not abated.

The simmering tension flared into violence again on October 21. The government said on October 31 that 89 people had been killed, 136 injured, more than 32,000 made homeless. More than 5000 houses were burned down between October 21 and 30.

Questions have been asked as to why the conflict has not been resolved when Myanmar has such overwhelming support from all actors in the international community, both in the East and West.

Is it because the government has no serious intention to resolve the conflict, or is it because the government does not have adequate resources and the experience to handle such violence?

Recent developments indicate that both the Rakhine State and central governments have taken certain initiatives to end the violence, including the state government’s issuance of article 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in some townships, and President U Thein Sein’s declaration of a state of emergency. Are such measures adequate to bring peace and harmony in the state?

When considering the conflict in Rakhine State – or elsewhere in the country – one must understand that it is a consequence of inherent ethnic problems that successive central governments have failed to address since independence in 1948.

The complexity of the Rohingya issue fundamentally lies in the fact that they are not considered citizens of Myanmar. This makes it unique from other conflicts in the country. While other ethnic minorities demand autonomy under a federal system, the Rohingyas struggle to be recognised as an ethnic group of the country.

Some have suggested that had President U Thein Sein reached some resolution on the Rohingya issue he could have won a Nobel Peace Prize. Some others have opined that opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been careful not to say too much about the conflict for fear of a backlash in the 2015 general election.

While the conflict in Rakhine State should not be viewed an opportunity for individual glory or political advantage, both President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have important roles to play for the emergence of a durable solution.

Many in Myanmar society, including Rakhine people, cannot accept Rohingya as fellow citizens. The government uses the term “Bengali” when referring to them. In these circumstances, is there room for dialogue? If so, where can it begin?