WASHINGTON - Myanmar’s Rakhine State is no stranger to conflict or controversy.
In 2012, violence erupted between the Rakhine Buddhist majority and Rohingya Muslim minority. That conflict spread. The United Nations Human Rights Council counts 145,000 displaced individuals as a result.
Last month, tensions worsened after militants killed nine border police on October 9. Constitutionally, the military handles security matters and moved forces into the area. Thus far, at least five soldiers and 33 insurgents have been killed in clashes.
The latest events have renewed questions about the region's prospects for peace after so many years of tension.
While Aung San Suu Kyi serves as the nation’s de facto head of state in the newly created role of State Counselor after her National League for Democracy (NLD) party took power five months ago, the newly formed government does not appear to have done much to curb military abuses.
The U.S. State Department, activists, and rights groups also have raised concerns over reports of rape and murder in the Rakhine State, and they have renewed questions about the region's prospects for peace after so many years of tension.
Ma Nyo lives in Sittwe, located in the Rakhine State and is internally displaced. “We do not know how long we are going to have to say here,” she said, “we want to go back to our homes, but if we do, then we will be attacked by Muslim terrorists.”
Hunter Marston, an independent Myanmar analyst who previously worked at the U.S. embassy there notes that the violence that first erupted in 2012 has mostly subsided.
“The Rohingya had been confined to refugee camps, so it was a very unpleasant status quo,” said Marston. “But the actual uptick in violence in the past month has been sort of a new flare-up and marked by a little different character.”
This has made it difficult to discern who is really carrying out the recent acts of violence, and since there is such little information being released, Marston said it’s hard to vet what’s really taking place.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has a very difficult situation to deal with. It’s pretty much lawless there at the time, but at the same time we’ve seen her form this advisory committee headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. So this is a good move, but whether or not it has teeth or if it will have impact certainly remains to be seen,” said Marston.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has not directly commented on the allegations of abuses of Rohingya, she has urged the military to show restraint and act within the law.
The lack of information isn’t helping those in the camps, and has led to wild rumors.
Maung Maung, also an internally displaced resident in the Rakhine State said many people are fearful, and the rumors don't help. “I’ve heard that the police are attacking Rohingya, burning their houses and killing people and now they want to search us too. There is already a curfew in the camps, so I think the conflict will come here soon.”
With the area under operational control of the military, humanitarian assistance has been temporarily suspended, although there are reports of some aid trickling in.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, recent satellite images it’s reviewed show at least three villages where residents have said that troops torched homes.
The government denies it burned down villages or committed any alleged human rights violations.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, called upon the government to “end its blanket denial of wrongdoing and blocking of aid agencies, and stop making excuses for keeping international monitors from the area.”
Marston said the “gradual process of discrimination and [removal of] the Rohingya’s political rights and citizenship rights actually dates back to the early days of independence, to 1948, from the British.”
He describes a “successive wave of military junta leaders actually stripped the Rohingya very gradually of political rights and slowly denied them the right to vote.”
Marston called it “upsetting” that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, removed Muslim candidates from its roster. “Myanmar does have a history of Rohingya in parliament and Muslim politicians participating, especially in Rakhine State. So it’s really sad to see how the NLD and the country as a whole has disenfranchised the Rohingya population from any political route reconciliation,” said Marston.
Marston said ASEAN leaders have been pressing Myanmar to address the situation because of a large number of Rohingya attempting to cross borders and enter neighboring countries.
However, with Aung San Suu Kyi not using the word Rohingya and asking others to do the same, Marston stated it could take generations to heal the distrust and discrimination.
Katie Arnold contributed to this report.