Myanmar unrest threatens to destabilize democracy and region

A week of clashes in western Myanmar has left at least 84 people dead and forced some 22,000 into crowded camps along the coast, putting pressure on the government.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Muslim refugees, fled from ethnic violence, have some chores to be done, around their tents at Thechaung refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Tuesday, Oct. 30.

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Nearly a week of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar that has killed more than 80 people and forced tens of thousands to flee could jeopardize the country’s fledgling democratic process, observers say.

Fighting between the two ethnic groups, Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, began last June, but the most recent violence started on Oct. 21, just days after Burmese President Thein Sein was reelected as the chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party.

The government reported 84 people dead and another 29 injured in the latest outbreak of violence, but human rights groups estimate that the death toll could be much higher, reports the Associated Press. More than 32,000 people were displaced by the conflict during the past week, with the Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence.

The head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, put pressure on the Myanmar government to resolve the situation quickly, warning that if the violence is not contained and resolved, it could lead to the radicalization of the Rohingyas. This could not only stress the fragile democracy in Myanmar, but threaten regional security as a whole, report Agence France-Presse and Voice of America.

"If the international community, including ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], are not able to relieve that pressure and pain [the Rohingya] could become radicalized and the entire region could be destabilized,” Mr. Pitsuwan said.

Though the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar (also called Burma) for decades, they are largely viewed domestically as land-hungry intruders who came illegally from neighboring Bangladesh.

The discrimination against the Rohingya is not only culturally ingrained in Myanmar, but institutionalized as well, according to a second Associated Press report:

Today, the Rohingya also face official discrimination, a policy encouraged by Myanmar's previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups. A 1984 law formally excluded them as one of the country's 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and are deprived of citizenship.

Neighboring Bangladesh, which also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, says thousands of Rohingya refugees have sought to flee there by boat. Its policy, however, is to refuse them entry.

"We don't feel safe," a Muslim refugee, Zainabi, told the AP. The fish-seller fled her village with her two sons Thursday after attackers set her home on fire. "I wish the violence would stop, so we can live peacefully."

On Sunday, boats carried refugees toward cramped camps that already house thousands of Rohingyas who fled their homes after a previous wave of violence broke out over the summer. In June, three Rohingya men were accused of raping a Rakhine woman, sparking widespread rioting and leading nearly 80,000 people – mostly Muslim – to flee to nearby camps, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

“I fled my hometown, Pauktaw, on Friday because there is no security at all,” another refugee told AP. “My house was burned to ashes and I have no money left.”

Human Rights Watch released stark satellite pictures showing parts of the area of unrest. One photo was taken on Oct. 9 and shows “hundreds of closely packed houses” and “scores of houseboats along the northern shoreline,” reports the BBC. A second photo, taken on Oct. 25, shows the same 35-acre stretch of land almost entirely absent of houses.

“In one district, with a population of some 3,000, only burnt out poles from the houses and charred stubs of trees were to be seen,” reports the BBC.

President Thein Sein acknowledges the damage, according to his spokesman: "There have been incidents of whole villages and parts of the towns being burnt down in Rakhine state.”

But acknowledging the violence may not be enough. Some fear the country’s failure to address the root cause of violence could exacerbate the crisis.

"These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence," Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.

Salai Elaisa Vahnie, the executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute, based in the US, notes in the Burmese and Southeast Asian newspaper The Irawaddy that Myanmar’s ethnic conflict is a formidable barrier to democracy.

The continued ethnic conflict in Burma reflects the nature of the political crisis in Burma – deeply rooted in and prolonged by the Burman nationalistic claim that effectively utilized the world’s most reclusive and successive military as a tool to accomplish its goals of ethnic cleansing, a policy which ravaged 60 million people with fear and poverty, killed thousands, and produced millions of refugees.

With the recent positive developments led by President Thein Sein, the international community must continue to recognize that the ethnic issue is at the heart of the country’s problem, and only when this issue has been addressed fundamentally, with constitutional and institutional arrangement, can a stable democratic state that respects human rights and embraces peaceful co-existence in diversity be realized. That is when Burma, in real sense and substance, can be considered a democratic state that is capable of positively contributing to regional and world peace, stability and economy.

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