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President Barack Obama will visit Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) later this month and meet President Thein Sein, who is trying to steer the country toward democracy. Yet sectarian strife could still deal a setback to the government’s significant political, economic, and social reforms that have been made since the democratic transition began in 2011.
There are 135 official ethnic groups and eight national races in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, yet one group—the Rohingya Muslim minority (4 percent)—is one of the most persecuted in the world, according to the United Nations. The latest bout of sectarian violence began in June, when historical tensions between members of the Buddhist majority and this Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine bubbled up again over the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a group of Muslim men. Almost 90 people were killed, and more than 3,000 homes were destroyed.
In late October there was a resurgence in the violence. More than 110 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes set ablaze in the latest round. To date, more than 100,000 Rohingyas are still displaced out of the 800,000 living in Myanmar. Many Rohingyas, who are widely seen as illegal Bengali immigrants, have attempted to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi, however, say they are already burdened with more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees and cannot accommodate more. Others have tried to take refuge in Malaysia by boat, though two vessels have sunk in the past two weeks.
Under military rule in Myanmar, the Rohingya people have been denied citizenship, land rights, and sufficient education or employment, despite having lived in the area for centuries. The new democracy has not changed their situation. Since July, Buddhist monks have been staging recurrent anti-Rohingya rallies in various towns and cities in the country. In October, hundreds of Buddhist university students rallied in Sittwe (the capital of Rakhine) against the Rohingyas, whom they called “terrorist Bengalis.”
Members of another minority group, the Kaman Muslims (who have citizenship), are also being driven from their homes in Rakhine state. To make matters worse, the sectarian issue is very much on the radar of Islamist militant groups in nearby Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, all of whom who are calling for a jihad.
Government steps so far have only served to exacerbate the situation. Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, noted in a press conference in late October that President Sein’s administration is “not at this point taking the proper decisions toward a real solution.”
Priority one would be to look after displaced Rohingyas and other Muslim minorities. It appeared that aid groups and donors had that covered, with the permission of the Burmese government. This was obviously a step in the right direction, particularly when back in July, President Sein had suggested that this minority simply be permanently exiled to a UN-run camp in a different country. Buddhist monks, however, have stopped aid agencies from helping Rohingyas. Doctors Without Borders, for instance, say its workers are at risk—posters and pamphlets are being distributed to threaten any aid workers offering assistance.
The government’s 27-member, multiethnic, multireligious commission created in August to investigate the roots of the Rakhine unrest sounded like a good idea, but there’s an apparent delay in the release of the findings. That month, President Sein made a major concession—to offer a “proper education” for Rohingya youth in new, government-run schools. This sounded like progress, especially as one estimate suggests more than half of this minority is illiterate. President Sein said this Muslim minority needs a “modern education” to teach them to be more “thoughtful” and “decide what is right and wrong,” unlike what is offered currently in their religious schools. But there was no real follow-up about how the education program would be executed.
There’s also been no consideration of creating job opportunities for older displaced Rohingyas who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Forced labor continues to be an issue, according to the Arakan Project, a rights group focused on Rohingyas in Asia. In some cases, the Burmese army has recruited Rohingyas—including children—at gunpoint for road clearing, emergency camp repair, and reconstruction of model villages in exchange for barely half a kilo of rice for the day.
These people have existed as a “stateless” minority for decades and now struggle to survive in makeshift camps, living “worse than animals,” according to the Rohingya Human Rights Association. Without consciously integrating the Rohingya into Burmese society and the economy, they will continue to feel disconnected from the country’s future, and sectarian violence will recurrently flare up.
But the larger issue is, of course, how this minority can exist in Myanmar in the long run if they are not seen as citizens by the ruling democratic government or the majority Buddhist population. There is a dire need, through strategic public communication, to change the psychology of the average citizen who mostly views this Muslim minority as a nuisance. This will require the government to at some point promote a more inclusive national identity if there is to be any hope of ever absorbing this marginalized group.
All of these difficult issues involving the Rohingya (and now at least one other Muslim minority group) must be reconciled publicly in order for this newly democratic state to regain national stability and truly achieve its potential. Whichever strategy the government adopts, it’s safe to say that militant groups in various countries, as well as foreign investors, will be watching with a keen eye. At this stage, policymakers in Myanmar are still in a position to prevent what could become a systematic form of sectarian cleansing in one of the world’s newest democracies.