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Fears Grow of Spreading Instability in Burma Sectarian Violence

  • Daniel Schearf

A woman displaced by the recent violence in Pauktaw sits by her sleeping child at Owntaw refugee camp for Muslims outside Sittwe, Burma, November 1, 2012.

A woman displaced by the recent violence in Pauktaw sits by her sleeping child at Owntaw refugee camp for Muslims outside Sittwe, Burma, November 1, 2012.

Burma's President Thein Sein says armed groups, some foreign, are behind deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state. Analysts have questioned the allegations, though, and say the root causes of tensions need to be addressed or instability could spread.

Burma's state media published a statement by Sein proclaiming evidence that armed groups in western Rakhine state instigated violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

The statement in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper said security forces have seized 180 firearms and evidence of weapons manufacturing. But there were few other details to back up the president’s claims of foreign and terrorist involvement in the violence that has killed at least 89 people and displaced thousands.

Policy issues abound

Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, said the vague language and the president’s reference to terrorism indicates authorities want to distract the public from policy failures.

"This is the latest excuse on the part of the Burmese military government basically to externalize its own responsibility by blaming or by attempting to join Washington's language or discourse of 'war on terror'," said Zarni.

It is not clear what started the latest violence on October 21, but it quickly spread. Official figures show more than 5,000 homes were destroyed and entire Muslim neighbors burned to the ground.

Internally displaced persons

Hundreds fled the remote areas by boat. Police in Bangladesh say at least 120 people, believed to be Rohingya, are missing after their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal.

Official figures provided by the United Nation's refugee agency show 35,000 people were internally displaced, the vast majority Muslim, and 3,000 are still at sea.

President Thein Sein has changed his position on the Rakhine violence several times since fighting broke out in June. He first suggested all Rohingya should be deported. Then he told VOA’s Burmese service that the government would build schools for Rohingya children.

He also blamed local Buddhist extremists for increasing tensions. Now, he is saying foreign organizations are supporting armed groups in the conflict.

Religious tensions flare

Jim Della-Giacoma is Southeast Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. He said the threat to Burma's stability is more likely coming from tensions between communities rather than outsiders.

"Looking for scapegoats outside the country or pointing to a terrorist threat, which may or may not be there, is still not the most significant problem. The problem is containing this and stopping the violence from spreading across the country," he said.

Della-Giacoma said protests in Rangoon by Muslims and others in various cities by Buddhist monks have raised concerns the conflict could become religious.

Other Muslims, such as the ethnic Kaman, have gotten caught up in the violence. Reports of grenade attacks on two mosques in Karen state this week further raised the specter of spreading religious tensions. Earlier clashes in June were followed by revenge attacks in Bangladesh when Muslims attacked and burned Buddhist pagodas.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has warned that, if left unchecked, instability could further spread to neighboring countries.

Della-Giacoma agreed and cited flows of Rohingya to Malaysia, some seeking refuge, as well as Indonesian Muslims threatening retaliatory attacks against Buddhists.

"It has already had a spillover effect. It is a regional problem whether the government of Myanmar [Burma] likes it or not. And, I think, but it is first and foremost an internal problem that requires some serious effort and moral leadership to overcome some of the... widely held attitudes that are driving it on the ground," he said.

Rakhine, Rohingya skirmishes

The Rohingya are a stateless people with few legal rights and number about 800,000 in Burma and 300,000 in Bangladesh.

Most people in Burma consider them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, despite many having lived there for generations.

Decades of tension between the Rakhine and Rohingya over scarce resources broke open in June with the rape and murder of a Rakhine girl, allegedly by Rohingya.

A Rakhine mob attacked and murdered a busload of Muslims, sparking retaliatory mob attacks that left 90 people dead and tens of thousands living in government-run camps.

The U.N. refugee agency says the camps are overcrowded, and they are scrambling to get adequate humanitarian supplies.

The United States and British Ambassadors to Burma on Thursday visited Rakhine state to assess the situation.

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