Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms
Myanmar's president warned of a threat to stability and democratization as Buddhist and Muslim minorities clash over longstanding grievances.
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Rohingya make up around 90 percent of the population of north Arakan, but their Rakhine neighbors dismiss them as “Bengali Muslims” and refuse to acknowledge the Rohingya communal identity that local Muslim leaders have forged over the past half century.
“The Rohingya claims to be an ethnic people is a concern to Rakhines because it might lead them to claim territorial rights,” worries Wong Aung, an ethnic Rakhine exile in Thailand who runs an environmental NGO.
For decades, says Mr. Robertson, Myanmar’s military rulers fanned the flames of communal rivalries to divide and rule while tapping into a strain of Bamar racism that has infected many otherwise openminded and liberal intellectuals. “Too many right-thinking people in Burma seem to have been sucked in by the more extreme sort of propaganda,” he says.
Caught between Myanmar and Bangladesh
The Rohingya have suffered a turbulent recent history: Fearing for their safety in the face of military operations in 1978, some 200,000 fled to Bangladesh. Another 250,000 fled in similar circumstances in 1991. Bangladesh, however, has refused to shelter them. This past weekend Bangladeshi coast guard vessels turned away Rohingya boat people as they sought to flee the violence in their homeland.
The Rohingya were allowed to vote in 2010 parliamentary elections that ushered in the new nominally civilian government that has been introducing democratic reforms. But promises of better treatment from candidates of the official Union Solidarity and Development Party have proved hollow.
The new government “has made it very clear in parliamentary statements that [the Rohingya] are a national security problem and that they are not from Burma so they cannot be given rights,” says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group based in Bangkok.
But the mere fact that a new government has taken office and is introducing political change is bringing old problems to the surface, says Martin Smith, an expert on Myanmar who has studied the country’s ethnic mosaic.
“As the government changes, the lid is opening on old problems that have to be dealt with after so many years of neglect,” Mr. Smith says. “Old problems are going to attract new attention.”
So far, worries Robertson, the government’s refusal to address Rohingya grievances “raises fundamental questions about the government’s ability to forge a peaceful and multiethnic Burma. If they are really reformists,” he argues, “they have to recognize that Burma belongs to all its ethnic groups and races.”