Myanmar Conflict: Ethnic Discrimination in Rakhine State Sparks Violence Against Muslim Rohingya


Sectarian violence in Myanmar continues. Earlier this month ten Rohingya men were allegedly dragged from a bus in the western state of Rakhine and killed by a mob of ethnic Rakhine in response to the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men. Although the specific cause of this conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists is still unclear, this outbreak of violence in and near Rakhine state's capital city of Sittwe, has resulted in the death of at least 60 people. President Thein Sein has declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law in the region, warning that "vengeance and anarchy" could derail Myanmar's transition to democracy. 

This incident has resulted in the exodus of hundreds of Rohingyas to the neighboring countries of Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. There have been numerous reports by these countries of Rohingya landing on their shores, but none have provided a more detailed look than the account given by a Rohingya named Muzaffar to TIME magazine. From a detention center in India, Muzaffar gives a testimony over the phone of his journey with hundreds of other Rohingya refugees to Thailand. He claims that they were detained offshore by Thai security forces, which sent them back to sea, into international waters, in a motorless barge. Many refugees tried to swim for nearby ships or islands, but drowned. After drifting for ten days in shark-infested waters with meager rations, they were picked up by the Indian coast guard and have remained in detention since. More than 300 people who were with Muzaffar are missing and most are presumed to be dead. 

The Rohingyas are probably not surprised at the tragic turn of events. Even though they have lived in Myanmar for nearly a century and number more than 800,000 in the Myanmar state of Rakhine, hey are still a stateless people who are not recognized by the Myanmar government. In 1982, the Myanmar government instituted a law that has made it nearly impossible for the Rohingya to obtain citizenship. The military regime, and some local ethnic Rakhine, has acknowledged the existence of the Rohingya, and say that there was a greater influx of illegal ethnic immigrants from Bangladesh -- known then as East Pakistan -- in 1948. 

As Myanmar is generally known for its multitude of ethnic groups (there are more than 130 distinct groups) and the discrimination these groups exhibit against each other, the Rohingya are among the many that live in an environment where they possess no civil rights or representation in the government. This has resulted in many being subjected to "forced labor, land confiscations, restrictions on travel and limited access to jobs, education and healthcare."

Some government officials harbor a deep bias against the Rohingya, illustrated by Myanmar's consul in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, who called the Rohingya people "dark brown" and "as ugly as ogres." Even the state-newspaper New Light of Myanmar referred to Muslims as "kalar," a racial slur.

The Rohingya in Rakhine are overseen by the Border Administration Force -- also known as the Nasaka -- which consists of military, police, and customs, and immigration officers. There has been alleged documentation of human rights abuses by the Nasaka on the Rohingya including "rape, forced labor and extortion." They control all aspects of Rohingya mobility in the country.

Although the Rohingya seem to be rejected by the government of their land, other countries are not necessarily treating them with hospitality. Many are currently in limbo after fleeing Myanmar. There are about 300,000 Rohingya that currently live in Bangladesh without refugee status or legal rights; many of them are either in refugee camps or working temporary labor jobs and dependent on Bangladeshi locals. The possibility of repatriation to Myanmar looms over their heads. With most countries unwilling to accept Rohingya refugees, their future as a people is uncertain.

The democracy movement has not taken a firm position regarding the conflict. After Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) gained power in April, she has "urged all people in Burma to get along with each other regardless of their religion and authenticity." However, she has yet to address the issue of the Rohingya as it could undermine her newly gained political foothold and the burgeoning success of a democratic transition. NLD spokesman Nyan Win says, "The Rohingya are not our citizens."

Even as the military loosens its grip on the reins of power in Myanmar and the country makes its alleged turn toward democracy, political institutions such as parliamentary representation are still in need of improvement as many ethnic minority groups and their interests continue to be marginalized. What began as a seemingly isolated criminal incident quickly erupted into violence between Buddhists and Muslims, which is an unfortunate manifestation of governmental persecution and the long-standing tension between local ethnic groups. 

Of course, the possibility of achieving mutual understanding between ethnic, cultural, and religious groups seem bleak in light of ingrained prejudices they have toward each other. But for Myanmar to achieve true democracy in the eyes of the international community, the government should first recognize the diverse groups that call Myanmar home and confer them the stability of basic civil rights. If the government does this, maybe then their people will follow suit.