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Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State

By International Crisis Group
October 22, 2014

The highly volatile situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State adds dangerously to the country’s political and religious tensions. Long-term, incremental solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole.

The International Crisis Group’s latest report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, looks at how the legacy of colonial history, decades of authoritarian rule and state-society conflict have laid the foundation for today’s complex mix of intercommunal and inter-religious tensions. Rakhine State, whose majority ethnic Rakhine population perceive themselves to be – with some justification – victims of discrimination by the political centre, has experienced a violent surge of Buddhist nationalism against minority Muslim communities, themselves also victims of discrimination. The government has taken steps to respond: by restoring security, starting a pilot citizenship verification process and developing a comprehensive action plan. However, parts of this plan are highly problematic, and risk deepening segregation and fuelling tensions further, particularly in the lead-up to the 2015 elections.

The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
  • Rakhine Buddhists have tended to be cast as violent extremists, which ignores the diversity of opinions that exists and the fact that they themselves are a long-oppressed minority. They are concerned that their culture is under threat and that they could soon become a minority in their state. These fears, whether well-founded or not, need to be acknowledged if solutions are to be developed. The desperate situation of Muslim communities including the Rohingya, who have been progressively marginalised, must also be frankly recognised and resolutely addressed.
  • The government faces a difficult challenge: the demands and expectations of Rakhine and Rohingya communities will be very difficult to reconcile. Ways must be found to allay Rakhine fears, while ensuring the fundamental rights of Muslim communities are respected. To end the climate of impunity, the government must bring to justice those who organised and participated in violence.
  • Clarifying the legal status of those without citizenship is important. But many Muslims will likely refuse to identify as “Bengali”, fearing this is a precursor to denial of citizenship. A negotiated solution should be pursued, or the citizenship process may stall. Coercion is likely to spark violence.
  • The international community – especially UN agencies on the ground – have a critical role in supporting the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable communities, which are likely to persist for years. The government itself must do more in this regard.
  • Unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country’s cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide.

“Any policy approach to the problem must start from the recognition that there will be no easy fixes and that reconciliation will take a long time” says says Jonathan Prentice, Chief Policy Officer and Acting Asia Program Director. “Halting extremist violence requires starting a credible process now that can demonstrate to the Rakhine and Muslim communities that political avenues exist in which their legitimate aspirations might be realised”.

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