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Myanmar playing with fire on Rohingya issue

(Photo: AFP)

October 16, 2016

The government and military will have to bear the blame if estranged Muslim community decides to take up arms

One can make a strong argument that the ongoing insurgent violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State has been in the making for some time now.

Just over a week ago, suspected Rohingya militants attacked three border posts, killing nine Myanmar police officers, The Global New Light of Myanmar reported. Official reports said 62 pieces of arms, 27 bullet cartridges and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were stolen during the attack.

And then on Tuesday, the same government mouthpiece reported the death of four soldiers and one so-called culprit after troops were attacked "by hundreds of men armed with pistols, swords and knives".

A "clearance operation" by government forces encountered resistance from a group of villagers who were armed with guns, swords and sticks.

The Buddhist majority in Rakhine State - many would argue with the support of the state - has long oppressed the local Muslim Rohingya, who are dubbed "Bengalis" by the government and denied citizenship.

No group has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks, but two people who have been captured were Rohingya.

Interestingly, the central government has been level-headed in its response. A press conference was held during which an appeal for caution and restraint was urged. De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi refrained from any accusations and reiterated her commitment to peace and stability.

Within days, high-ranking officials were dispatched to the conflict-ridden area to talk to local Muslim leaders.

There is real concern that the stolen weapons will be used against government troops and police at a later date.

There is also a serious danger of the repeat of the 2012 communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims that killed scores of people and displaced tens of thousands.

The level-headed response from the government was not an olive branch and most likely it would not be enough to bring permanent peace.

Myanmar has been dealing with more than a dozen ethnic rebel groups and armies all over the country and therefore, the government should understand the art of compromise.

The Rohingya seem to have concluded that Myanmar would not address their grievances unless they take up arms. The danger is the world could be witnessing the making of another armed ethnic army - one more to be added to Burma's long list of rebel forces.

The situation would not have descended to this level if Myanmar had been more even-handed in its treatment of the Rohingya. Instead of trying to understand the problems on the ground, Buddhist nationalist monk Wirathu was quick off the blocks, painting the clashes this past week as the work of Islamic jihadists.

Normally, it is Muslim terrorists who exploit such terminology. But this is a unique case of a Buddhist monk - referred to by Time magazine as "the face of Buddhist terror" - exploiting this Islamic concept of struggle for justice.

It is high time the Myanmar government did something about this conflict and set the record straight before the likes of Wirathu make this long-simmering crisis far worse.

Myanmar should know that there is a lot of sympathy for the Rohingya people among the world community - from Muslims and non-Muslims.

If the Rohingya do take to the path of armed resistance, undoubtedly there will be support for them. If the Mon, Karen, Wa, Shan, Chin, Kachin and other ethnic groups can take up arms against the Myanmar state, why can't the Rohingya?

The irony here is that all the other armed groups, at one time or another, wanted to break away from Myanmar. The Rohingya, on the other hand, simply want to be accepted as a part of the Myanmar nation.

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