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Extremism may throw Myanmar off course

Illustration: Liu Rui/Global Times

By Yu Jincui
April 14, 2014

Three years after the Myanmar government opened the country to the world, nascent democratic reform has brought optimism about development and myriad hopeful investments. However, a strain of religious extremism that permeates the country, especially western Myanmar, is threatening the progress. 

International aid groups fled the strife-torn state of Rakhine early this month, after some 400 rioters attacked their residences and offices in the state capital Sittwe, irritated by rumors that a female international aid worker had desecrated a Buddhist flag. 

Some staff claimed they have been barred from going back to resume services. Although local Myanmar officials pledged a return of those workers "later this month," a date hasn't been specified yet. 

Given that tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps that are heavily reliant on food and medical assistance from NGOs or the state, the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has drawn mounting international pressure. 

The UN as well as Western countries such as the US and Britain issued warnings to the Myanmar government last week, urging an early solution to the crisis and meaningful steps to protect humanitarian workers and residents in the future. 

With conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists escalating in Rakhine, aid groups who are accused of favoring Muslims have drawn the ire of some Buddhists for quite a long time. 

Although NGO representatives strongly denied the accusation, demonstrations and riots demanding these groups leave have put the government under growing pressure. 

In February, Myanmar government expelled the main healthcare provider in Rakhine, Doctors Without Borders. 

A more dangerous tendency is that a violent strain of religious extremism is surging, which threatens humanitarian assistance work and disturbs the pace of reforms. 

Renata Lok-Dessallien, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar, said the attack on international organizations undergoing in Myanmar was "an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine state." 

The plight of aid work and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine undermined Western optimism that the country is embracing democracy, and has increased criticism over the "inaction" of Myanmar government over the deteriorating conditions. 

There is no question that the Myanmar government has a responsibility to ensure the return of the aid workers that were forced to flee, and the government also needs to work out a plan ensuring humanitarian assistance is provided fairly, safely and securely in future. 

But more importantly, the newly democratic country should keep alert to the growing violent trend of extremism that may kidnap the reform process. 

Myanmar's transition faces a rocky road because of the country's vulnerable economic foundation, complicated multi-ethnic background and the deeply rooted influence of military. The Rohingya issue has long been a thorny one that has made Myanmar a global target of criticism. Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and refused to grant them citizenship despite many have lived in the country for generations. 

In the recent census, the first in three decades in Myanmar, "Rohingya" is not listed on the form as one of the acceptable ethnicities. Many observers have expressed concerns that not allowing people to self-identify as "Rohingya" could only fuel discrimination against Muslims as well as sow the seeds of widening estrangement. 

In the foreseeable future, the decades-long Rohingya Muslim issue will remain a contentious part of Myanmar's transformation agenda and be a cause for the international community to point fingers. 

There is no favorable solution to tackle the headache yet. Even the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi evades giving a clear-cut position over the Rohingya issue, kindling opposition against her from activists and human rights groups. 

But the communal violence between the majority Buddhists and Muslims must be curbed. Otherwise, the rising tide of Buddhist nationalism and extremism may intensify in the run-up to the election and derail the country's transition. 

Myanmese cherish the changes in their country very much. One of my Myanmese friends posts about her improving life and reposted inspiring news concerning Myanmar's development every day on WeChat. 

A US-funded poll released recently by the International Republican Institute concluded that 88 percent of respondents sampled across Myanmar believed things in the country were heading in the right direction, and 57 percent held that their economic situation was going to improve in the coming year.

With the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and the census controversy, criticism has intensified over the country. The aid work needs to be resumed as soon as possible and the violent trend needs to be curbed. This requires serious government efforts, though we shouldn't deny the real changes in the country. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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