Sectarian violence could jeopardize Burma’s fragile democratization process, President Thein Sein warned, as the government declared a state of emergency to stem violent conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.
“If we put racial and religious issues,….the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront,” said Thein Sein, “there’s a danger that…the country’s stability and peace, democratization process and development, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost.”
Ethnic violence in the country’s far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state claimed at least 17 lives in clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya.
Burma is composed of a patchwork of fractious ethnicities that were bound more by colonial diktat than by any historic sense of community. Tensions between the country’s majority Bamar (or Burman) population and various ethnic groups—the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, the Mon and the Arakanese, to name just a few—have for decades driven civil insurgencies in the country’s borderlands.
According to Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics………
…the situation was all the more tragic because both sides had been persecuted by Burmese authorities. He said the nominally civilian government could well benefit from the unrest because it diverted attention from the military’s continued attacks on other ethnic groups. Up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape state-sanctioned abuse and discrimination by Arakanese locals. They belong to the only ethnic group in Burma subjected to a two-child policy and severe travel limits. Rohingya babies born out of wedlock are placed on blacklists that deny them schooling and forbids marriage. Animosity has been fanned by prominent members of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner and leader of the 1988 student uprising, this week referred to the Rohingya as terrorists: ‘‘We want to say clearly that Rohingya are not one of the [Burma] ethnic nationalities.’’
“We have now ordered troops to protect the airport and the Rakhine villages under attack in Sittwe,” Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, told Reuters. “Arrangements are under way to impose a curfew in some other towns.”
Some victims of the violence were from the stateless Rohingya group of Muslims, who live in abject conditions along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh and are despised by many Rakhine, who belong to the predominantly Buddhist majority.
About 100 Rohingyas tried to flee by boat into Bangladesh but were pushed back on Monday morning, Bangladesh’s border guard said.Five boats carrying about 200 Rohingyas were pushed back out to sea on Sunday, said Anwar Hossain, a major with the guard.
Rohingya activists have long demanded recognition in Myanmar as an indigenous ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright, claiming a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine State, where they number some 800,000.But the government regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.
The sectarian violence is partly due to the Rohingya’s statelessness between Burma and Bangladesh, analysts suggest.
“The Rohingya fit somewhat awkwardly in that borderland between the two different political systems, they have nowhere to call home and, as a result from time to time, there are these episodes of conflict,” Nicholas Farelly, a Burma watcher at Australia National University, tells VOA. “We have seen one of those very recently and it has in this case taken the form of Buddhist and Muslim mobs of varying sizes coming to blows.”
The possibility that the relationship between the country’s “two political titans could falter and set back Burma’s reform movement” is also a growing concern.
“For now, Thein Sein has managed to keep the more conservative parts of the military on board, just as Aung San Suu Kyi has persuaded her more radical supporters to accept compromise with the state,” notes the BBC’s Feargal Keane:
There is a fear that more conservative elements of the government might see rising ethnic unrest, expanding protests over living conditions, and the growing political threat from the NLD as a reason to put the brake on reform. As the regime’s grip loosens and long dormant forces emerge the transition is likely to be challenged in numerous and unpredictable ways.
‘The strange dynamics of Myanmar’s rapid process of democratization enter a new phase this week,” the FT’s Gwen Robinson writes, with some observers claiming that Suu Kyi’s celebrity status is threatening to undermine reform efforts.
The trouble, say critics, is that Ms Suu Kyi’s mega-celebrity status runs the risk of eclipsing her cause, and her political experience. ………..This kind of celebrity is bringing with it political headaches, as demonstrated by the tensions in the UK over her speech to the combined houses of British parliament.
After much wrangling, and despite opposition from Black Rod, the Queen’s official representative, Ms Suu Kyi will address parliament in Westminster Hall. This is normally reserved for heads of state, though even Ronald Reagan had the lesser honour of speaking in the smaller Royal Gallery in the House of Lords.
On her recent trip to Thailand, Suu Kyi warned would-be investors to maintain “a healthy skepticism” toward the reform process, prompting speculation of growing tension between the democracy icon and Thein Sein.
“Suu Kyi has since played down suggestions that relations between her and the government were damaged by her remarks,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “but analysts say this time she will likely receive even more media attention than during her visit to Thailand.”
“The lesson, perhaps, for those who want to support Myanmar’s reformist government is to treat Ms Suu Kyi carefully,” notes Robinson. “She may be the world’s leading democracy icon but she is still a minority opposition leader, and a fledgling one at that.”
The country’s reform process is unlikely to generate a sustainable democratic transition without a vibrant civil society, but Burmese non-governmental organizations face considerable hurdles, from lack of capacity and expertise to bureaucratic impediments to registration and funding, say activists.
“We haven’t been very successful in establishing a vibrant civil society in Myanmar,” said activist- comedian Zarganar.” This is partly because many of us have just been released from prison. We hardly know anything. I don’t even know how to write a proposal.”
He made the same points at recent roundtables at the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID:
If they think everything is fine now and are looking at donating money, at least please scrutinize carefully to ensure the money gets to the people who are actually doing the work. At the moment, that’s not happening.
We haven’t got exposure either, because we can’t travel abroad. So the money ends up with people who have a passport in hand, can write a good proposal, and speak English fluently, while the people who sacrificed their lives and worked for the public good have nothing.
And let’s say I want to set up an NGO (non-governmental organization). I applied for a registration. I couldn’t get it. That’s why I had to set up HOME as a company. As an NGO, you have to renew (the registration) every year.