Pathways to peace in Rakhine State
By Taylor O'Connor
April 30, 2014
Violence has raged on in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for nearly two years now. As security forces continue to be implicated in acts of violence targeting Muslims and known instigators of violence operate freely, it becomes increasingly clear that the Myanmar’s political leaders have no interest to resolve the conflict. While humanitarian agencies in Rakhine State come under attack by the communities in which they live, international praise and increased investment allow the government to neglect addressing conflict related issues. Members of the international community involved in Myanmar must have deep awareness of the context and knowledge of a number of interrelated issues if they are to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. Mindful planning and coordinated action would ease tensions and support resolution of key issues.
This article will describe the historic development of the conflict and highlight recurrent patterns of violence. It will explain local and national issues underlying the conflict and give an overview of the critical work many local actors are doing to resolve them. Finally, it will provide strategies that a range of international actors can take to contribute to peaceful resolution of the conflict. A positive approach is taken throughout this article; though, it should be understood that both ill-informed engagement and neglect would further exacerbate the conflict and prolong the suffering of its victims. For their involvement in Myanmar, the international community shares responsibility for outcomes in Rakhine State, whatever they may be.
A Wider Perspective
From an outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to understand the vicious communal violence and anti-Muslim rhetoric that have plagued Myanmar during the last two years. While many in the international community heap praise on the country’s government for its political reforms and reward it handsomely with a steady flow of investment, there is no end in sight for a conflict whose predominant victims have suffered silently for decades.
As if we are to accept that these victims of brutal ethnic and religiously motivated violence should be collateral damage on Myanmar’s road to democracy, the conflict in Rakhine State has often been portrayed simplistically as a byproduct of the democratic transition. While there is no doubt that political changes underway have great influence on conflict dynamics, the current manifestations of violence are but a continuation of a longstanding conflict deeply rooted in Myanmar’s complex history.
The rally point that sparked the anti-Muslim riots of 1938 was none other than Shwedagon Pagoda, the Buddhist holy site at the heart of Yangon. Echoing their spiritual ancestors at the forefront of nationalist movements almost 100 years earlier, leading monks of today’s infamous 969 movement actively vilify Muslims and call upon Buddhists to take action for the ‘protection’ of their faith. Longstanding issues come to the fore as patterns of violence, common throughout decades of military rule, reveal themselves once again.
Perhaps it isn’t the dreamy democratization process the international community may have wished for, but we should not forget who the architects of this process were. Military leaders, currently profiting immensely from the inflow of international investment, gave themselves considerable control over political decision-making processes and immunity from criminal prosecution. Who is to say then that Myanmar’s democratization process is not going as planned?
As the military continues an unceasing assault on the Kachin in the north and as it becomes increasingly clear that the government is not taking steps to resolve issues contributing to violence in Rakhine State, there are no signs that foreign governments are dissuaded from further investment. Of the failure of the Myanmar government to stem anti-Muslim violence, what then is to be done to resolve a conflict that has dragged on for close to two years now?
The conflict in Rakhine State is complex; issues run deep and are intricately connected to what is happening throughout country. Topics covered in this article are laid out in a way to help the reader understand main issues and how they relate to each other. Ultimately,I hope that readers will gain insight into how actors can engage effectively with the conflict and support peaceful resolution to a number of underlying issues. There are pathways to a durable peace. Only if actors involved are perceptive will they see them, and only if they work together can they walk down them.
As much as it might seem so for those caught up in the conflict, Buddhists and Muslims living in Myanmar have not always been at odds with each other. Muslim citizens have been an active and valuable part of both Burmese and Arakanese kingdoms for centuries. Supporting the development and expansion of respective kingdoms in which they lived, they often served in key leadership positions and filled important roles in the economy.[i]
Arab, Persian and Indian Muslim traders, who would become the core of Myanmar’s Muslim community, settled in coastal regions intermarrying with locals starting from the 11th century.[ii]As the Burmese kingdom expanded, Muslims resettled throughout its territories. By the start of the nineteenth century, there were Muslim communities of considerable size in all the major cities in the kingdom.[iii]
Many examples exist of peaceful relations that Burmese and Arakan[iv] kingdoms had with their Muslim neighbors and citizens. The Arakan king himself took on a Muslim title and introduced the system of coins bearing the Muslim kalima[v] after the Bengal Sultan supported him to take back his throne from the invading Burmese army in 1430.[vi] As a tribute to the contributions of Muslims within the Burmese kingdom, the last king of Burma ordered the construction of a teak guesthouse in Mecca for the convenience of Burmese Muslim pilgrims.[vii]
It isn’t to be expected that relations were always perfect between all members of both respective communities, but it goes to show that in addition to these and other numerous examples of peaceful relations, there are no records of organized religious or ethnically motivated violence prior to the colonial era in Myanmar.
Historic Issues Take Root
It wasn’t until after Burma[viii] was colonized that issuesbegan to take root. With no restrictions on overland migration, large numbers of people from British India migrated to Burma seeking work and opportunity. Classified collectively as Indians, they included mostly Hindus and Muslims, though persons from of other religious backgrounds also came.
As their numbers grew and as many already worked closely with the British, power dynamics within Burma began to shift. An emerging feeling amongst Burmese natives of the time was that immigrants from India were dispossessing them of their country.[ix]
Rising nationalist movements of the time were predominantly Burman Buddhist and often expressed anti-British sentiments through anti-Indian demonstrations.[x]Economic competition was cited as a main cause of riots that erupted in the 1930s.[xi]
Rioters in 1938 also took issue with the high rates of marriage between Indian Muslim men and Burmese Buddhist women.[xii] Mixed race children of these unions were resented by the majority of the Buddhist population and continued to be seen as foreigners. In the lead up to the riot, newspapers called for the expulsion of Indians, demanded laws to ban inter-faith marriage and called upon people to boycott Muslim shops.[xiii]
During WWII, the Burma Independence Army (BIA) invaded with the Japanese to fight the British army, which was made up almost entirely of Indians and non-Burman ethnic groups. During the war, an estimated 500,000 Indians were chased out of Burma by the BIA.[xiv] Ethnic Rakhine nationalists joining the BIA clashed with Muslims who stayed loyal to the British.[xv] Both sides claim atrocities committed by the other during the war.
Following independence in 1948, opposition political groups and a number of ethnic nationalist movements took up arms against the government. Of the ethnic nationalists, Karen, Mon, Kayah, Pa-O, Rakhine and Rohingya nationalists revolted first. The Chin, Kachin and Shan later followed. Rakhine State was split between areas of government control, two separate communist groups, multiple ethnic Rakhine insurgent areas and Mujahid Muslim guerrilla areas.[xvi] Though none of the groups in Rakhine State enjoyed mass support, their activities further polarized communities.[xvii]
Patterns of Anti-Muslim Violence in the Military Era
State sponsored violence targeting the Rohingya[xviii] occurred throughout the military era. Military campaigns of 1977-1978 and 1991-1992 were characterized by killings, mass arrest, torture, rape and destruction of property. Residents fled violence in masse seeking refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. In both cases, the regime claimed this was proof that they were illegal Bengalis.[xix]
Anti-Muslim riots continued to occur periodically even after independence, and especially since military rule starting from 1962. In their 2002 report, “Easy Targets: The Persecution of Muslims in Myanmar”, Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) interviewed witnesses from riots of 1983, 1988, 1997 and 2001. In their findings, they described these patterns of violence:
When they (the riots) occur on a large scale, it almost always happens to be at a time of growing public outrage at the military regime due to political or military repression, economic problems, food crises and other issues. And almost every time they occur, witnesses testify that the Army, police, or state authorities were the actual instigators. Racial and religious tensions are exploited to inflame Buddhists to attack Muslim communities. Often a simple incident such as a fight or the elopement of a Buddhist woman with a Muslim man is seized upon and embellished. At other times rumors are spread to bring the tensions to the boiling point; mass-produced and anonymous pamphlets of hate literature suddenly flood the towns.[xx]
They go on to describe how the police and military stood by while mobs of monks and civilians destroyed mosques, homes and shops of Muslims. Sometimes this would go on for days before the military or police stepped in.[xxi]
Patterns of Violence 2012 – Present
A similar pattern unfolded at the start of the current conflict. Initial riots occurred during a time of sustained criticism of the military’s questionable democratic transition, an escalating military campaign against the Kachin and planned expansion of economic projects historically marked by environmental devastation, land grabs, forced relocations and other gross human rights violations.
The initial spark was the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three men alleged to be Muslim.[xxii] The incident was framed as a religious issue then seized upon by local, state and social media. Anonymous leaflets depicting details of the crime along with inflammatory statements attacking followers of Islam were printed and distributed.[xxiii] The brutal killing of ten Muslims in Taungop that soon followed sparked riots between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists throughout the state.
In late September, after a large gathering in Rathedaung, ethnic Rakhine leaders published resolutions calling for the formation of people’s militias and reclamation of land from Muslim communities.[xxiv] Not surprisingly, within weeks coordinated attacks occurred almost simultaneously in nine townships throughout Rakhine State and continued unimpeded for several days.
Outbreaks of violence were followed by the arbitrary arrest of large numbers of Muslims and government imposed restrictions on the movement of Muslims in the State.[xxv] Widespread anti-Muslim hate speech was met with silence by both the Myanmar government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party.
Uninhibited by fear that the government would take action against perpetrators and emboldened the support of nationalist monks vilifying Muslims, Buddhist mobs soon targeted Muslims throughout the country. Between March and August of 2013, attacks occurred in 18 townships across three States and four Divisions.[xxvi] In most cases a simple incident of ‘unruly’ behavior of a Muslim resident justified rapid formation of mobs which burned down Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship. Witnesses testified that the perpetrators were not from the communities themselves.
Throughout the conflict, accounts are given describing security forces standing by while atrocities are committed.[xxvii] In many cases, they are reported as participating in violence targeting Muslims. In Rakhine State, Muslim prisoners continue to be tortured and Muslim communities remain confined in camps.[xxviii] Periodic attacks have continued in Rakhine State and other parts of Myanmar, in all cases following previous patterns.
After the initial bout of violence in June of 2013, President Thein Sein proposed his solution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the Rohingya should be resettled to third countries and put in UNHCR run refugee camps.[xxix] He referred to them as illegal immigrants and described them as a threat to national security.[xxx] He has later spoken to protect anti-Muslim preacher U Wirathu and of recent prioritized the nationalistic agenda of the protection of race and religion.[xxxi] With no concrete actions taken to stem violence or to ensure the rights of Muslims are protected, little should be expected of the president’s intention to resolve the conflict.
While the government proactively clamps down on nonviolent protesters at economic project sites and continues a steady practice of arbitrary arrest throughout the country, it is consistently unwilling to make any movement towards bringing to justice known perpetrators of violence or censuring known instigators of violence when these are directed towards Muslims. Throughout the conflict and still recently the government has; however, taken proactive steps to conceal information about attacks, protect security forces implicated in massacres of Muslim villagers and to ramp up restrictions on operation of humanitarian activities.
As politically supported Buddhist nationalistic agendas have historically led to increased ethnic conflict in turn justifying military control, further alignment of political leadership with nationalistic agendas is a dangerous path. Should political leadership choose to continue down this path, they could knowingly use resulting increases in conflict to justify measures of military control.
If the conflict is to move towards a sustainable solution, a number of underlying issues must be addressed. Prime among these are the grievances of the ethnic Rakhine community.
Tomas Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, recently concluding his final visit stated that, “Ordinary Rakhine Buddhists have a genuine and legitimate desire to have their economic, social and cultural rights respected, promoted and protected after years of neglect. The grievances of the Rakhine Buddhist community must be heard.”[xxxii]
Striking parallels can be found between the grievances of ethnic Rakhines and ethnic minority groups throughout the country. Though containing the vast majority of the country’s natural wealth, ethnic areas suffer from chronic underdevelopment. They often lack basic infrastructure and access to steady electricity. Ethnic areas fall behind the rest of the country in areas of education, access to quality healthcare and opportunities for a sustainable livelihood.
People living in ethnic areas often fall victim to a range of abuses from large scale resource extraction and industrial projects led by military dominated companies profiting immensely from exploitation of the abundant natural resources in their land. Ethnic leaders are long advocates for transparency in the government’s economic deals and assurances that a share of the profits from projects within their borders support the development of the state.
Generating an estimated 8 billion dollars in sales from 2011, revenue from Kachin State’s Hpakant jade mining industry was then the country’s largest source of foreign income.[xxxiii] Since the area was transferred to the control of the government after the 1994 ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization, large-scale mining projects supported by Chinese business interests have reduced Hpakant’s mountains to rubble. While military companies reap huge profits, local residents have seen little but rampant crime and excessive drug addiction in their communities as a result.[xxxiv]
With the recent completion of the Shwe Gas pipeline, pumping oil and gas discovered off the coast of Rakhine State to China, natural gas is likely to surpass jade as the country’s largest source of foreign income.[xxxv] Profits from the project hidden in undisclosed contracts negotiated under the former military regime, local residents are not likely to see any tangible benefit from the pipeline or its accompanying special economic zone.[xxxvi] They are likely to see increased military presence in economic zone areas and watch military dominated companies destroy the environment while becoming subject to increased land confiscation, forced relocation and other human rights abuses.
There are no laws in place to protect people’s right to land or to protect the land itself.[xxxvii] Multiple pieces of legislation passed during 2013 actually make it easier for military cronies and their business enterprises to seize land while conveniently placing the regulation of harmful practices in the hands of the Burmese government.[xxxviii] It seems that foreign companies will be free of responsibility from the inevitable environmental destruction and human rights abuses resulting from their investments.
Amidst a climate of increasingly high levels of development aid and foreign investment, Quintana further warns that,“the process of economic development will have a corrosive effect on Myanmar society and its environment, leading to exploitation and the reinforcement of the position of privileged elites.”[xxxix]
Cultural Rights, Burmanization and Control
A central component of historic conflicts throughout the country has been the dominance and control exerted by the majority Burman ethnic group pushing cultural assimilation through the spread of its religion, Buddhism.[xl] As the popular saying goes “Buddha-bata Myanmar-lumyo” (to be a Myanmar is to be Buddhist), Buddhism is inseparably intertwined with Myanmar national identity.
In-group/out-group dynamics favor those who are Burman over non-Burmans and those who are Buddhist over non-Buddhists. Non-Burman ethnic groups, and to a greater extent those who are also non-Buddhist, find themselves in a perpetual struggle to defend their culture in the face of what has often been termed ‘Burmanization’ (now sometimes called ‘Myanmarization’).[xli] This notion of formation of a national identity based on assimilation to Buddhist ways in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Myanmar has been a central component of conflict since independence, resulting in over 60 years of civil war.
While the country’s first prime minister U Nu (1948 – 1962) supported cultural and religious assimilation as a strategy for nation building, successive military regimes have opted for a strategy of removal of rights, repression and forced assimilation of non-Burman and non-Buddhist groups.[xlii] Through decades of military rule, senior levels of the military and civil service were reserved strictly for Buddhists. Non-Buddhist groups still face restrictions on worship, education and other religious activities.[xliii]
For Christian ethnic groups, such as the Chin and Kachin as well as many Karen, Kayah and others, the struggle against Burmanization is deeply intertwined with their struggles for economic and political rights. What makes Rakhine State different from others is that in conjunction with large populations of Muslims living within the state, ethnic Rakhines themselves are Buddhist. Amidst struggles against the military government for political and economic rights, they find a powerful ally for the ‘protection’ of their Buddhist cultural identity.
Deep resentment felt towards the government for decades of military abuse, neglect of their development needs, exploitation of their resources and current provisions ensuring military control over political processes has been conveniently redirected towards a manufactured Muslim threat to their identity.[xliv] As the government increases military presence throughout the state, well-founded mistrust of the military government by the ethnic Rakhines has been forgotten. With heavy military presence, central control is ensured in the event that opposition and separatist elements gain further ground within the strengthening ethnic Rakhine political sphere.
Identity Politics, Census and Citizenship
The political underpinnings of ethnic classification are a slippery slope for Myanmar’s Muslims. Since the colonial era, ethnic groups throughout Myanmar have sought political recognition based on the needs of their respective groups. During 50 years of military rule, previously gained rights were taken away from groups deemed as non-native. As ‘to be Myanmar is to be Buddhist,’ one’s choice of religion has been a central determinant of ethnic classification.
In the creation of the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, General Ne Win explained that only pure-blooded nationals would be called citizens; thus, enjoying the full rights of citizenship.[xlv] Identifying those of ‘pure blood,’ he selected 135 ethnic groups, removing most Muslim and other previously recognized South Asian groups.
Those not of ‘pure blood’ with documentation proving pre-1948 ancestry could be eligible for separate classes of ‘citizenship.’ Ne Win rationalized that these classes of citizens were not to be trusted, and thus the law restricted their involvement in the ‘affairs of the state’ or any rights as ‘stipulated from time to time’ by the state.[xlvi]Those unable to prove pre-1948 ancestry would not be eligible for any status.
Followers of Islam throughout the country are scrutinized to determine their status. Not representing the diversity of places from which they draw their ancestral roots, Muslims are required to mark on their identity card, ironically termed ‘citizen scrutiny card,’ as being from India, Pakistan or ‘Bengali.’[xlvii] Descendants of mixed marriages choosing to follow the Buddhist faith have no such requirement.
As the history of Muslim settlement in Myanmar is one of intermarriage with local ethnic groups, it goes to show that a person of mixed heritage who identifies as Buddhist could classify themselves as Burman, Rakhine, Karen or any part of their ancestry they so choose. A person who identifies as Muslim, on the other hand, would be forced to include classification of some ‘foreign’ part of their heritage.[xlviii]
An Immigration Department policy in effect since 1990 actually prohibits Muslims from identifying as Burman.[xlix] Those in Rakhine State and around the country previously identified as Burmese Muslims were no longer prohibited to choose this inclusive option for identity classification. Muslims find themselves with increasingly narrow choices for selection of ethnic categories that will guarantee acceptance and protection of their rights within Myanmar society.
While many have enough documentation to access some level of citizenship, popular discourse supported by political and Buddhist leadership has deemed the Rohingya collectively as illegal Bengali immigrants.[l] Amidst further allegations of inaccuracy and unnecessary divisiveness by ethnic groups around the country, choosing to pursue a nationwide census before resolving outstanding issues of citizenship has proven volatile.
In addition to the escalation of violence that was fuelled by the census, many of those not included on Ne Win’s list of ‘pure bloods’ worry that the government will use census results to deny them their right to live in the country they call their home or will use the country’s flawed democratic system to justify further violation of other rights.
As the debate over whether or not to include the Rohingya or other groups as citizens rages on, the inherent injustice is not simply that some have been removed from the list of ethnic groups eligible for citizenship. It is that the system itself is based on ethnic classification.
Civil Society, Activism and Combating Hate Speech
Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, David Mathieson commented that, “already, Myanmar has a robust and increasingly sophisticated civil society sector that is active in promoting ESC (economic, social and cultural) rights. Donors and investors also need to see civil society’s promotion of ESC rights not as an annoyance or impediment – and many do, even if they won’t admit it – but as a valuable reflection of local needs.”[li]
For decades, civil society leaders have worked to deliver services to populations in need while making extra provisions to ensure their work could never be interpreted as politically threatening. Under challenging circumstances, they developed projects and grew their organizations with minimal external assistance. These leaders are in a unique position to influence social perceptions of the conflict and to support interfaith cooperation. Indeed many of them are doing just that, though as they always have, quietly and persistently.
Many student activists from 1988 protests and other former political dissidents have returned to Myanmar as vocal advocates on the emergent political scene. Artists and youth have also been active in contesting repressive policies.[lii] Local activists, often forming small scale interfaith groups and loose associations, have further initiated a wide array of trainings, advocacy efforts and other activities seeking ever more creative ways to combat religious intolerance.
Following attacks in Meikthila and Lashio, activists with the ‘Pray for Myanmar’ group distributed thousands of stickers and t-shirts promoting religious tolerance. A group of local activists and former political prisoners supported by the famous comedian Zarganar and famous blogger Nay Phone Latt recently launched a campaign to combat nationwide hate speech.[liii]
The most vocal advocates speaking out against anti-Muslim rhetoric, aside from representatives of Muslim groups themselves, are in fact Buddhist monks. Notably, U Gambira, the leader of 2007’s Saffron Revolution,[liv] called upon the government to take action against the leader of the 969 movement for spreading anti-Muslim hatred.[lv] The influential Sitagu Sayadaw released a public statement on the matter and other prominent monks have organized interfaith gatherings.[lvi]
As one of the largest religious minority groups in the country, Christian leaders have not remained silent. The YMCA in Yangon hosted an interfaith dialogue event in response to anti-Muslim violence spreading through central Myanmar in early 2013. Catholic Bishops also issued a joint statement condemning the violence, urging the government to take action and asserting that, “Religious diversity is the strength of this nation. Attempts to dilute this fundamental right must be resisted by all.”[lvii]
Ethnic Rakhines seeking peaceful coexistence with their Muslim neighbors are prevalent. They can be heard speaking of the need to rebuild economic links, create job opportunities, develop education and protect the environment. Some are working in cooperation with their Rohingya, Kaman and other Muslim friends to organize cooperative activities to safeguard their communities from violence and implement projects to build trust between communities already affected by violence.
Though incidents of violence in Rakhine State frequent the media and as it may seem that anti-Muslim hate speech dominates national discourse, the country is in the midst of an ideological struggle. Civil society groups, grassroots activists, monks and other religious leaders throughout the country are at the forefront of the movement combating the spread of religious hatred and intolerance. Collectively, these individuals play a critical role in reframing the conflict and in the creation of a more tolerant society.
Resolution to be Found
To come to a peaceful resolution, the conflict in Rakhine State must not be seen in isolation. Focusing only on resolving issues within the State would but scratch the surface. Both political and social solutions must be found, for local and national issues.
Addressing key issues at the political level in Rakhine State is a necessary first step and will go a long way to stem violence in the short term. These include resolving citizenship issues of the Rohingya, granting freedom of movement to Muslims, proving that the rights of all inhabitants are protected, bringing perpetrators of violent attacks to justice, ensuring accountability of security forces for crimes committed and granting unfettered access to humanitarian agencies in the state.
To support a long-term sustainable solution, a number of nationwide issues must also be addressed. These include dealing with chronic underdevelopment issues, reforming unjust laws, releasing military control over political processes and making political settlements on transparency and profit sharing in economic deals. Structural violence and abuse of power exacerbate tensions at the local level. Progressive political change will only lead to positive outcomes in Rakhine State.
Negative social perceptions of Muslims must also be transformed. The voices of a radical minority pushing exclusionist ideologies must be tempered. Anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech give impetus to violent attacks. While the government should be held responsible to stop those who openly instigate violence, local voices for tolerance and peaceful coexistence must also be heard. Opening space for these voices will mitigate the spread of violence in the short term and make way for the creation of an inclusive national identity that will bring peace in the long-term.
Pathways to Durable Peace
To make progress on any major political issue it must be understood that government leaders will not act of their own accord. Local actors are well aware that political progress thus far has only come after decades of pressure from nonviolent activists and armed groups, all within a climate of economic hardship brought by sanctions from international governments. With the military still dominating the political scene, political progress in Myanmar will only be made as it has since the military first took power in 1962: the government leaders must be backed into a corner whereas they have no option but to change.
As widespread international support of Myanmar’s transition and opening of investment have allowed the Myanmar government to neglect emerging issues in Rakhine State, the UN and international leaders have a particular responsibility. They must take a critical step forward in exerting the political pressure needed so that the government will be accountable to address issues in Rakhine State as noted in the previous section. A hard and forceful stance linked to tangible consequences is needed to ensure appropriate action is taken and leaders are held accountable. While inaction of international leaders contributes to further protraction of the conflict and unnecessary loss of human life, coordinated pressure from world leaders would stem violence and pave the way needed for other actors to build peace.
Of the central role local actors play in ensuring political change and in resolving a broad array of issues underlying the conflict, herein lies the opportunity for others in the international community to tip the balance. The international community should reinforce the efforts of local actors to force political change and address key issues.
Many civil society groups and local actors face new struggles as their efforts are eclipsed by the arrival of large-scale international development and humanitarian initiatives. Their knowledge and expertise often undervalued, many have found little space for their ideas within pre-established agendas of international agencies. In devising approaches and strategies that would contribute to lasting solutions, the international community must spend more time and energy creating ways to support local actors to achieve their goals and less in finding ways local actors would support their own.
Many local NGOs working in a range of sectors see the Rohingya as a people of Myanmar and have a strong interest to be involved in Rakhine State. They have creative ideas for engagement and are seeking opportunities to support new projects. A multitude of local interfaith groups have also sprung up since the start of the violence and are actively working to develop new ways to combat the spread of anti-Muslim propaganda.
Donors should engage in dialogue with the local NGOs to hear their ideas about new projects in Rakhine State. They should further seek out these new small-scale interfaith groups and support their members to develop strategies for combating religious hate and intolerance. To address interconnected issues, donors can support local groups that pressure the government to make political change, protect the rights of those in need and expose the injustices of their leaders.
The nature of interactions between humanitarian agencies and local communities either contributes to renewed cooperation between Buddhist and Muslim communities or to further exacerbation of the conflict. The consequences of the humanitarian community’s failure to engage effectively with the ethnic Rakhine community are apparent today. The recent attack on NGO offices that forced humanitarian agencies to evacuate most of their staff was a severe escalation. The full extent of effects of the attack on displaced populations is yet to be seen, but the outlook is grim.[lviii]
As humanitarian agencies plan to re-engage, they must understand the danger in the belief that they can operate as an objective and neutral third party. Humanitarian agencies are main actors in the conflict, their presence and decisions for engagement being key factors affecting conflict dynamics.
It is necessary that humanitarian agencies develop strategies based on high levels of contextual understanding and deep knowledge of conflict dynamics. Conflict sensitivity should more than a box to tick before moving forward with pre-planned activities; contextually relevant conflict sensitivity should be used a basis to inform strategy, plan approaches and make key decisions for engagement. Agencies must build positive relationships with local communities and listen to the grievances of the ethnic Rakhine community. Civil society groups and religious leaders should be key allies.
Humanitarian and development strategies that focus on full support of the government while neglecting consultation with and incorporation of civil society actors fuel further widening of center-periphery imbalances and strengthen the hand of leaders responsible for decades of exploitation and widespread abuse of ethnic populations. A balanced approach must be taken. Prior to the design and delivery of intervention strategies donors, humanitarian agencies and development agencies must have meaningful consultation with communities in which they work. While meaningful consultation would build trust, lack of consultation contributes to mistrust.
National NGO leaders should be given a central voice in how humanitarian agencies should proceed as they plan for re-engagement in Rakhine State. As exclusion of their voices and dismissal of their ideas contributes to disinterest in working with humanitarian agencies, showing true value of their input and taking time to build positive relationships with them would open opportunities for cooperative engagement certain to de-escalate the conflict.
Development agencies must not overlook Rakhine State. On the contrary, they should take extra consideration to support and operate projects within the state. As the grievances of the ethnic Rakhine community reflect unmet development needs, active engagement by development agencies to work to address the development needs of the state will relieve tensions not only between ethnic Rakhines and Muslim communities, but also between ethnic Rakhines and humanitarian agencies. A humanitarian strategy that includes consideration of the development needs of the whole state will reduce tensions in the short term and make available the possibility for long-term resolution.
International governments and businesses, vying for the upper hand on investment, must be mindful of the impacts of their economic projects. They must ensure that their investments include protections for the environment and against human rights abuses. They should acknowledge the validity of the struggles of ethnic leaders around the country by making settlements with the government that guarantee transparency in deals and an equitable share of profits to support the development of local communities where projects are based.
International media should expand the scope of their reporting. Efforts to expose injustices are valuable and necessary; though, media should also be mindful of how much exposure is given to those individuals spreading intolerant ideologies. Platforms should be made available for the voices of peaceful coexistence to be heard. Covering stories of local actors working for peaceful coexistence will give momentum to the interfaith movement and inspire a new generation interfaith leaders. A shift in public perceptions resulting in part to further coverage of interfaith actors would have social and political implications supportive of peace and reconciliation.
Through their political leaders, donor agencies, businesses, aid organizations and media, the international community are main actors in the conflict in Rakhine State. As such, each is responsible for how their actions either escalate or mitigate violence. Collectively, these individuals and groups have a profound influence on the dynamics of the conflict and on the likelihood that a resolution will be found. They must be mindful of their role and influence. They must understand how national issues are deeply interwoven with issues in the conflict. They must be perceptive enough to recognize the efforts of local actors and flexible enough to capitalize on emerging opportunities, meager as they may seem.
The efforts of local actors will not cease. They will continue to push for political change, advocate for rights and combat hate speech. The challenges they face are great. The international community should take every opportunity to empower and support them. Should they succeed, and indeed they must, Myanmar will emerge a truly representative democracy,free from the exclusionist policies, manipulation and abuse of decades past.Voices for peaceful coexistence will transcend those of intolerance and lead the country in forging an inclusive national identity where the dignity and rights of all are protected.
Taylor O’Connor is a freelance consultant based in Myanmar. He specializes in the fields of peacebuilding, education and conflict sensitivity. He has worked in and around Myanmar frequently since 2006. Views expressed in this article are his own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] A detailed account of Muslim history in Myanmar is provided in Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (1972).
[ii] Earlier accounts of Muslims arrival to Northern areas of Myanmar from China as early as 800s AD. Smaller populations exist from their decedents identifying as Pathi/Panthay.
[iv] Arakan is the name used to refer to ancient kingdoms in Rakhine State.
[v]A Muslim declaration of faith.
[vi] Moshe Yegar, op. cit.
[vii] Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (2006).
[viii] The military junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.
[ix] Moshe, Yegar, op. cit.
[x] Matthew J. Walton, “Myanmar Needs a New Nationalism”, Asia Times Online, 20 May 2013.
[xi] Economic competition cited as main cause of riots in Final Report of the Riot Inquiry Committee published in 1939 by the British colonial administration as quoted in Moshe, Yegar, op. cit.
[xii] Chie Ikeya, “The ‘Traditional’ High Status of Women in Burma: A historical reconsideration”, The Journal of Burma Studies, Volume 10, 2005/06, p. 68 – 68.
[xiii] Moshe Yegar, op. cit.,
[xiv] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (1999), p.44.
[xv] Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma”, Paper presented to the conference of the Burma Centrum Nederland, Amsterdam, December 1995.
[xvi] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, op. cit. p. 109.
[xvii] Account of weak support for Rohingya Nationalists in Moshe, Yegar, op. cit. In interviews with ethnic Rakhines in Sittwe during 2013, some described disunity amongst ethnic Rakhines and the fact that multiple ethnic Rakhine armed groups couldn’t agree on aims.
[xviii] A Muslim minority group residing predominantly in Northern Rakhine State. The Myanmar government currently does not recognize them as an ethnic group.
[xix] “Easy Targets: The Persecution of Muslims in Burma”, op. cit.
[xx] “Easy Targets: The Persecution of Muslims in Burma”, Karen Human Rights Group, May 2002. p. 29.
[xxi] Ibid. p. 32.
[xxii] Identities of the men were never disclosed. One committed suicide in prison and the other two put to death.
[xxiii] Crisis Group Report, The Dark Side of Transition, 1 October 2013, p. 7.
[xxiv] “Arakan public meeting successfully concludes in Rathedaung”, Narinjara Independent Arakanese News Agency, 29 September 2012.
[xxv] Tomas Qintana, Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, A/68/397, 23 September 2013.
[xxvi] Myanmar consists of 14 provinces; or 7 states representing the areas of main ethnic races and 7 divisions.
[xxvii] See “’The government could have stopped this’: Sectarian violence and ensuing abuses in Burma’s Arakan State”, Human Rights Watch, August 2012.
[xxviii] Thomas Qintana, Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, op. cit.
[xxix] Burma Bulletin: A month-in-review of events in Burma, Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, Issue 67, July 2012.
[xxx] “Gov’t will not recognize Rohingya: Thein Sein”, Democratic Voice of Burma, 12 July 2012.And “Timeline of International Response to the Situation of the Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma/Myanmar”, Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, August 2013.
[xxxi] “Burma president backs anti-Muslim ‘hate preacher’ Wirathu”, Democratic Voice of Burma, 24 June 2013. and Tha Lun Zaung Htet, “In Burma President, Some See Change from Reformist to Nationalist”, The Irrawaddy, 25 March 2014. And Min Zin, “Why Burma Is Heading Downhill Fast”, The Irrawaddy, 31 March 2014.
[xxxii] Tomas Quintana, “Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar”, 19 February 2014.
[xxxiii] “Special Report: Myanmar’s old guard clings to 8 billion jade empire”, Reuters, 28 September 2013.
[xxxiv] Saw Yan Naing, “From Jade Land to Wasteland”, The Irrawaddy, February 2014.
[xxxvi] Undisclosed contracts described in “The Government Could Have Stopped This”, Human Rights Watch, opt. cit. p. 11.
[xxxvii] Aung Zaw, “Time to End an Era of Disastrous Development”, The Irrawaddy, 15 February 2014.
[xxxviii] Legislation described in Edward Chung Ho, “The Peace Process and Land Rights”, Democratic Voice of Burma, 18 June 2013. And Francis Wade, “Ceasefire Capitalism”, Foreign Policy, 5 December 2013.
[xxxix] Tomas Quintana, “Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar”, 19 February 2014.
[xl] Matthew J. Walton. The ‘wages of Burman-ness’: Ethnicity and Burman privilege in contemporary Myanmar. Journal of Contemporary Asia 43(1), (2013): 1-27.
[xli] A thorough account of Burmanization and how it affects Myanmar’s Muslims in Jean A. Berlie, The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslims (2008).
[xlii] Lian H. Sakhong, “The Dynamics of Sixty Years of Ethnic Armed Conflict in Burma”, Burma Center for Ethnic Studies, January 2012.
[xliii] “2013 Annual Report: Burma”, Covering January 31, 2012 to January 31, 2013, U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF), April 2013.
[xliv] As the Arakan Kingdom was a historic rival of Burmese Kingdoms and further historic abuse followed the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1784, conflict between ethnic Rakhine and Burmese actually reaches further back in history than the conflict with Rohingya and other Muslims.
[xlv] “Translation of speech by General Ne Win at meeting held in the Central Meeting Hall of the President’s House, 8 October 1982”, The Working People’s Daily, 9 October 1982.
[xlvi] “Translation of speech by General Ne Win at meeting held in the Central Meeting Hall of the President’s House, 8 October 1982”, Opt. cit. and“Burma Citizenship Law”, 15 October 1982, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b4f71b.html [accessed 4 October 2013]. Note: If the Citizenship Law is implemented fully it may allow alternative classes of citizens an opportunity to access full citizenship after three generations.
[xlvii] Sai Latt, “Burma’s Ominous Political Debate over Ethnicity”, The Irrawaddy, 25 June 2013.
[xlviii] This excludes the Muslim Kaman who are a recognized ethnic group of Myanmar living predominantly in southern areas of Rakhine State.
[xlix] Khin Su Wai, “Old identity, new identification for Mandalay minorities”, Myanmar Times, 11 April 2014.
[l] A pilot survey in May 2012 was said to have found that some 70 per cent of Rohingya had sufficient proof of descent to be eligible for some form of national identity documents. Cited in “Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon”, Asia Report No. 238, International Crisis Group, 12 November 2012, p. 4.
[li] David Scott Mathieson, “Transforming the culture of human rights in Myanmar”, The Myanmar Times, 16 December 2013.
[lii] Elliott Prasse-Freeman, “Build Burma from the Ground Up”, Foreign Policy, 22 June 2012.
[liii] Thin Lei Win, “Myanmar activists launch anti-‘hate speech’ campaign”, Reuters, 3 April 2014.
[liv] Monk led nonviolent protests against Myanmar’s military government in 2007.
[lv] “Anti-Muslim Violence in Central Burma”, Alternative ASEAN Network of Burma, BN 2013/1095: April 17, 2013.
[lvi] Matthew J. Walton, “Myanmar Needs a New Nationalism”, op. cit.
[lvii] John Zaw, “Myanmar bishops make rare statement on religious rights”, UCA News, 11 June 2013.
[lviii] Francis Wade, “Aid worker reveals chilling extent of anti-NGO attacks in Burma”,Asian Correspondent, 1 April 2014.