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Beyond bigotry: Unravelling ethnic violence in Rakhine

By Max Beauchamp
December 18, 2013

Since 2012, the long-term plight of the Muslim minority living in Rakhine State of Myanmar has gained unprecedented international attention. Muslims in Rakhine State and elsewhere across Myanmar have been the victims of violent attacks and arson campaigns.[1] These attacks come after decades of tension during which many Muslims – often known as Rohingya – in the northern part of Rakhine State remain stateless having failed to attain any form of citizenship. During 2012, most Muslims across Rakhine State were displaced from their communities into camps that they have not since been allowed to leave.

The campaign against Muslims in Rakhine State has been accurately described by Human Rights Watch as ‘ethnic cleansing’. It has involved razing communities to the ground as part of a concerted effort to rearrange the state’s ethnic composition.[2] Violent clashes can be blamed on culprits from both the minority Muslim and the majority Rakhine Buddhist communities, but the main aggressors across the state are unquestionably affiliated with Rakhine Buddhist networks. Casualty figures are unreliable but up to 1,000 people, the majority of them Muslim, are thought to have died in inter-communal violence during 2012.[3] Tensions have since persisted at a high level.[4]

In most instances, a similar pattern of violence evolved. A specific flashpoint, such as an argument between a Muslim shop-owner and a Rakhine Buddhist customer, or allegations of offenses committed by Muslim men against Rakhine women, is grasped as a rallying call for a violent response by groups of mostly young men. Rumours and virulent political speeches, spread by radio and the internet as well as through community networks, polarise many bystanders. Similar chains of events have been recorded in anti-Muslim riots elsewhere in Myanmar and in other countries. Politically-inspired communal violence between Hindu and Muslim groups in Gujarat, India, killed some 2,000 people in 2002.[5]

This working paper does not follow the common academic practice of isolating one specific factor as a primary cause of violence. Instead it points towards five different overlapping background causes that combine to create a volatile, high-risk environment. This approach is more likely to offer an accurate representation of the unrest and offer useful explanation to all those within Myanmar and internationally who are concerned about ongoing tensions and interested in pursuing potential solutions. It also demonstrates the complex challenges facing individuals or organisations aiming to reduce conflict over the long term. The work is based on written material and on interviews conducted in Rakhine State, in Yangon, and outside Myanmar in late 2013.

Views over violence in Rakhine State are often extreme and highly polarized. I have made every effort to offer an impartial account while remaining true to universal principles of human rights, equality, non-violence and also national sovereignty. As is often the case when covering emotive and controversial issues, it is likely that readers from all extremes will find plenty to disagree with.

1. Historical legacies

Efforts to build an inclusive state based on shared universal citizenship rather than ethnic categories have never been pursued with any sustained vigour in Myanmar. British colonial rule defined and codified ethnic differences, distinguishing in particular between the Burmese majority and minority groups. This legacy laid a basis for modern Myanmar, with regions outside the central plains mostly defined according to ethnicity – Mon, Karen, Rakhine, and so on.

Post-independence efforts to promote an inclusive government never took off, even before the decades of military misrule set in. External support for different armed groups added to tensions, from conflict between Japanese and Allied forces during World War Two to Chinese promotion and American suppression of communism during the Cold War. Minority groups typically continue to feel poorly represented at the national level, not only by the military-led government but also by the opposition National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Repeated ceasefires between ethnic minority leaders and military officials have created calm in many border areas but have rarely led to comprehensive settlements. They typically remained as elite-level agreements to share resource wealth, failing to counter the centralized nature of the government or encourage accountable institutions in peripheral, ethnic minority zones.

At the same time, tension and communal violence against Chinese and South Asian minorities have recurred regularly for over a century in many parts of Myanmar including the capital, Yangon. Migration from India was encouraged by the colonial authorities who often employed Indian officials as civil servants, functionaries and labourers. This, along with the role that migrant communities have fulfilled as urban traders and business brokers, has engendered resentment among the majority population. With the nation state defined in ethnic terms, migrant communities are easily scapegoated even if they have been around for many generations.

These historical patterns have perpetuated sharp ethnic distinctions between minorities and the majority population. Groups perceived as outside the classified 135 ethnic categories of national citizen are especially marginalized, including Muslims in Rakhine State. Longstanding yet unjustified alarm over Muslim dominance and propagation of Islam feeds ongoing xenophobia among the majority, making them an easy target. Muslims comprise only a very small percentage of the population of Myanmar but in several townships in Northern Rakhine State as well as some small areas within cities across the country their local numerical dominance appears to vindicate these irrational fears.

2. Ethnic politics and marginalized peripheries

It is important to grasp the importance of longstanding tensions between local leaders representing the Buddhist majority in Rakhine State and national authorities. As in other minority states of Myanmar, violent conflict against the central government has broken out in the past. Although active resistance has petered out, leaders of armed Rakhine activist groups remain in exile. For many people in Rakhine State, their struggle with an oppressive and centralised government dominates the political arena. Culturally, they feel that their heritage is not recognised and their past historical greatness has been undermined.

Ethnic identity is typically defined in Myanmar and across most of Southeast Asia in primordial terms, playing up the rights of a defined group of people (or a supposedly pure ‘race’) to ancestral land. State nationalism is built on a similar basis: historians and archaeologists in Indonesia or Thailand regularly produce new material apparently discovering the migratory routes of their nation’s pre-modern ancestors.[6] The term ‘race’ is still regularly used across Southeast Asia, for example in official Malaysian discourse that defines the natural racial and blood divisions of the population and devises policy accordingly or in commercial market research surveys asking people to tick what race they belong to as well as what brand of toothpaste they prefer.[7]

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhist leaders, along with leaders in most of Myanmar’s other border states, use ethnic identity as a rallying call to oppose the central state. Claims are based on asserting the rights to govern territory identified as the historical homeland of an ethnic group.[8] Demands typically fall short of full independence, based instead around stronger regional self-determination through a federal or decentralized system and through greater control of resources.

Economic inequalities fuel resentment. Development has tended to bypass minority states in Myanmar, benefits accruing instead to businesses linked to the central government and the military. Rakhine State is one of the poorest in the country. It sees limited benefit from natural resource exploitation including billions of dollars generated from offshore gas fields. Farmers complain that they cannot transport their products to market given the poor state of the road network. Fishermen lay the blame for the massive recent decline in fish stocks on large trawlers from outside the state owned by well-connected national business interests.

With ethnic affiliations so central to longstanding local political claims and to the central state’s efforts to prove its legitimacy, Muslim leaders in Rakhine State have adopted a similar logic. They have promoted the use of the old term ‘Rohingya’ to describe themselves as part of their assertion of rights along ethnic lines. The refusal of the Government and many Buddhists to recognize this term across Myanmar appears extreme but can be partly explained through the logic of Myanmar’s ethnic territorial politics. To most people in Rakhine State and elsewhere, the use of an ethnic label implies a claim to land along with an identity. This makes it threatening to politicians who are attempting to assert authority over their own perceived Rakhine homeland and to religious nationalists who associate the territory of Myanmar with Buddhism.

Most ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Myanmar Government insist on using the term ‘Bengali’ to describe the majority of Muslims in Rakhine State. The term emphasizes historical origins in neighbouring Bangladesh and India. It is understandably resented by Muslims themselves, many of whom believe that their families have been in Rakhine State for generations. For example, Muslim leaders refused to cooperate with a recent census that would have defined their ethnicity as Bengali, while denial of equal rights to Muslims in Rakhine State has for decades been justified by claiming that they are recent and often illegal migrants. Laws in Myanmar state that families need to have been resident in the country since 1823 in order to claim full citizenship status.

In this polarized environment, there is little time for shared values or common goals. Conceptions of equal rights or notions of plural governments that accommodate diverse groups within the same territory are not only of little concern but are also seen to undermine the Rakhine cause. Meanwhile, some vocal Muslim leaders inside Myanmar and among expatriate Muslim groups have attempted to counter oppression by pressing claims to Rohingya identity and adopting aggressive rhetoric. This has added fuel to the fire. With some Muslim leaders in Rakhine State arrested, and others confined to displacement camps along with the rest of the Muslim population, there are few respected representatives able to engage in dialogue.

Photo of displaced Muslim Children north of Sittwe, late 2013

3. Managing new democratic space 

As democratic space has expanded across Myanmar, repressive state practices have been scaled back. Public gatherings, political networks, civil organisations, mobile phones and the internet are all broadly tolerated. Many challenges remain, yetthis is unquestionably a massive shift after decades spent suppressing freedom of expression. 

Nevertheless, there is little guarantee that open political space will encourage progressive values. Instead, a relaxation of central authority can exacerbate politically motivated violence at the local level.[9] In Myanmar, partial democratic change has created space for airing racist views and promoting extremist organisations. Persecution of Muslims in Rakhine State, and across the country, has been facilitated by social networks. These include political parties, religious organisations and charities, some linked with the high-profile, media-savvy Buddhist monk known as Wirathu.[10]

The state response to initial signs of violence is a further important factor in determining how communal tensions spread.[11] In Myanmar, government inaction was compounded not only by earlier relaxation of authoritaran control but also by ingrained anti-Muslim sentiment among civil servants, military, and across society. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s President, suggested in 2012 that most Muslims in Rakhine State should be deported.[12] Many local residents and observers claim that local police units have repeatedly taken few if any measures to restrain anti-Muslim violence. Anti-Muslim campaigns conform to decades of state propaganda promoting extreme expressions of ethnic and religious nationalism across Myanmar’s Buddhist population. At a time when rapid changes inevitably create uncertainty at all levels, fear of outsiders and discrimination against minorities has grown. 

Violent incidents have become less frequent since the last outbreak of mass unrest in October 2012. This is partly because most Muslims in Rakhine State are confined to displacement camps that were established after threats and arson forced them to flee their homes. The most reliable estimates indicate that around 900 people died in the associated violence. A clear majority of the victims were Muslim. 

The reduced level of violence also results from a more assertive state response. In October 2013, violent attacks on Muslims before a planned presidential visit to the town of Thandwe in Rakhine State led to a stronger government reaction. Rakhine Buddhist ringleaders inciting violence were arrested by a police unit sent from the capital.[13] Clamping down on unrest is influenced by a desire to maintain authority, to stem unacceptable levels of violence, and to retain good international relations as Myanmar assumes the rotating chair of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), a body that includes Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim majority nations. 

4. New roles for political entrepreneurs 

Increasingly democratic politics have polarised ethnic relations in Rakhine State. The Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) builds its core support from strong ethnic association with Rakhine Buddhists, confronting the military dominated central government. Anti-Muslim sentiment and forced relocation of Muslim communities suit their political agenda.[14]

Ideologically, a strong assertion of ethnic identity demonstrates their status as the key body representing an exclusive Rakhine Buddhist territory. RNDP leaders position themselves to act as intermediaries between the state and citizens. Government institutions and civil servants are typically associated with the opposition in Rakhine State, the national Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is linked to the country’s military and former military leaders. In environments where accountability is limited and connections are needed to gain any benefit from the government, local political leaders often act as go-betweens. When local political entrepreneurs perceive that they can improve their local status by stirring up ethnic tension, the risks of communal violence increase.[15]

Those Muslims in Rakhine State entitled to vote have tended historically to back either the military-linked USDP and its predecessors or local Muslim parties. Since Myanmar’s reforms have been skewed so that the central government and the USDP hold the upper hand, RNDP politicians feel that they need to fight hard to gain electoral dominance. For instance, the President has the right to select the Chief Minister for each state from members of the state Parliament, including a quota of military appointees as well as elected representatives.[16] The Chief Minister of Rakhine State is a retired colonel who was the lead USDP candidate in the local elections of 2010.[17]

Basic electoral arithmetic suggests that forced removal of Muslims would benefit the RNDP. Increased anti-Muslim sentiment among the wider population decreases the scope for the government to offer voting rights to a greater number of Muslims. Interviews with community members, local leaders, and others linked with Muslims in Rakhine State repeatedly pointed to local RNDP activists as promoters of anti-Muslim violence. 

5. International perspectives 

Through a combination of misinformation and circumstance, most people in Myanmar and especially in Rakhine State see international organisations including NGOs and the UN as overwhelmingly pro-Muslim. Campaigns against international involvement and accusations of bias fuel ethnically exclusive nationalist agendas. National staff of UN agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations have been intimidated and access to Muslim displacement camps has repeatedly been blocked. 

Until recently, sanctions and efforts to avoid Myanmar’s military regime, along with government-imposed operating restrictions, led international agencies to limit their work in the country. By contrast, international support has been provided for stateless Muslims in northern Rakhine State over several decades, reflecting their extreme need, lack of citizenship, and a failure of the government to uphold their fundamental rights. 

Since mid-2012, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations have been providing greater levels of high-profile assistance to displaced people. Yet popular perception among the Rakhine Buddhist population, fed by extremist rumours, holds that external support only benefits Muslims. 

The UN and NGOs are now unlikely to make headway by arguing that support is allocated on the basis of need and in response to abuses of international human rights standards. There is little if any tradition of government resource allocation according to need in Myanmar, with resource allocation depending on political priorities and reflecting patronage connections rather than rational planning or welfare objectives. International isolation and low levels of education mean that understanding of human rights norms is extremely low. 

While providing support according to need is understandable from a technical perspective, international bodies also have to recognize that offering assistance to one side in a conflict situation is likely to increase tension and compromise operational neutrality.[18] Although some support has also been provided to the far smaller number of displaced ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and assistance was also offered in response to a severe tropical storm in 2010, the record of international humanitarian and human rights interventions has unintentionally stoked local fears and expectations of bias. 

International agencies are unlikely to be able to counter virulent campaigns against them in the short term. Over time, improved communication and ensuring outreach that supports poor Rakhine Buddhist communities could strengthen their scope to operate effectively. This may be necessary to ensure continued engagement yet it is not straightforward to implement. Combining appropriate approaches based on high levels of contextual awareness while also remaining consistent with international standards and focusing on greatest need is a challenging undertaking. 

More widely, continued international attention to problems in Rakhine State is vital but has to be applied cautiously in order to minimize the risks of a backlash. 


Conflict is still ongoing in Rakhine State. All groups have suffered but the State’s beleaguered Muslim population has been most heavily affected. Deeply entrenched bigoted attitudes have been awakened by recent political changes and the opening of democratic space. Tensions are likely to continue. Neither of the two large mainstream political parties, the military–linked USDP and the opposition NLD, have shown much concern for Muslim victims of communal violence across Myanmar. In Rakhine State, the locally dominant party that aims to represent the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist constituency, the RNDP, has electoral interests in marginalising Muslims and in exacerbating tensions. 

In the long-term, efforts to moderate ethnically defined nationalism and to introduce a pluralist notion of citizenship based on equal rights would be valuable.[19] More specifically, recognition of the citizenship rights of Muslims in Rakhine State who have lived there for many generations is important. However, it remains controversial. Ethnic tensions and racially defined categories are likely to continue for some time yet given their history in Myanmar and the high ethnic content of nationalism across most of Southeast and East Asia. 

Other interim approaches could consider inclusive development initiatives that look at building linkages between communities and gradually establish space so that displaced communities can in due course return to their homes. International agencies can increasingly demonstrate how they are supporting all ethnic groups. In a polarized environment, in which Muslim leadership is fractured and moderate Buddhist voices are hard to find, there is little discussion of a viable future plan to manage Rakhine State’s ongoing challenges. Efforts to build space for representative and responsive Muslim leaders may also support gradual improvements. 

Over time, improvements in how both local government and informal community structures operate could reduce reliance on potentially ethnically polarising local political entrepreneurs who operate as brokers between the state and local voters. Lessons can be learnt from successes and failures in addressing communal violence across South and Southeast Asia. Yet regional experience shows that democratic politics are unlikely to solve, and may well exacerbate, interethnic tensions. Local political entrepreneurs, some linked with criminal interests and others having a stake in fomenting communal unrest, are likely to become a common feature across many parts of the country. 

A more balanced relationship between the central authorities and state governments may reduce some of the frustration felt by local leaders in Rakhine State and elsewhere at a lack of access to power or resources. This includes the political role of state parliaments, administrative responsibilities of local government, and the scope for local businesses to benefit from new opportunities. However, Muslims and other minorities are likely to remain marginalised at all levels unless further measures are taken to recognize their equal rights. 

In the interim, continued careful monitoring and engagement places pressure on the government to manage future outbreaks of violence. Elections scheduled for 2015 are likely to lead to continued tension even if violent conflict subsides. A forthcoming national census, the first since the 1980s, is also generating concern across many minority areas of Myanmar. 

Max Beauchamp is the pseudonym of a development practitioner working in Rakhine State 

[1] This paper uses the uncontroversial term ‘Muslims’. While accepting the validity of the term Rohingya, the term generates strong responses in Myanmar. What is more, some Muslim communities in Rakhine State that have been persecuted since 2012 do not describe themselves as Rohingya, including groups referred to as ‘Kaman’ Muslims. The dispute over names is discussed later in the paper. 

[2] Human Rights Watch (2013) “All You Can Do is Pray”. Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State, April 22. Also Michael Mann (2004) The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge: University Press. 

[3] The BBC World Service estimates that 70% of victims were Muslim. 969: How Burma’s Buddhist Monks Turned on Islam. 3 September 2013, 

[4] International Crisis Group (2013) The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar. Asia Report N°251, 1 October. Also Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2013) Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State, 8 July. 

[5] See Ward Berenschot (2011) Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State. London: Hurst. Introduction. 

[6] See Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 

[7] See for example Joel Kahn (2006) Other Malays, Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World. Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press (Singapore) and NIAS Press (Copenhagen). 

[8] See Thomas Parks, Nat Colletta, Ben Oppenheim (2013) The Contested Corners of Asia: Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance, The Asia Foundation, 2013. 

[9] Similar processes are well documented elsewhere. See for example Gerry van Klinken (2007) Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia: Small Town Wars. Routledge. 

[10] The ‘969’ campaign associates itself with Buddhist values and promotes a boycott of Muslim businesses in defence of national identity. 

[11] Steven Wilkinson (2004) Votes and violence: Electoral competition and ethnic riots in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

[12] The Economist, 18 October 2012, No help, please, we’re Buddhists. 

[13] Those charged were later released on bail, a measure generally perceived in Myanmar as a failure to pursue justice while some Muslim leaders are thought to remain in detention. The Irrawaddy, 5 December 2013, 11 Arakanese Charged for Thandwe Violence Released on Bail. 

[14] The author interviewed RNDP politicians and activists in late 2013. 

[15] See Ward Berenschot’s research on India and Indonesia (op.cit.). 

[16] The Asia Foundation and MDRI/CESD (2013) State and Region Governments in Myanmar. Yangon. 

[17] All 14 Chief Ministers were the lead USDP candidate for their respective states. Most are retired senior military officers. 

[18] Guidance for humanitarian and aid agencies repseatedly stresses the need to ‘Do No Harm’ by avoiding stoking perceptions of bias through aid delivery. See for example various sources at 

[19] See James Fennell (2013) Rakhine State Conflict Analysis An overview of conflict dynamics at national and state levels, IDL and The British Council, 5th March.

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