Jakarta/Brussels, 12 November 2012: Even as Myanmar’s democratic transition continues apace, ethnic violence in Rakhine State represents a threat to national stability. It demands decisive moral leadership from all the country’s leaders as they strive to find long-term solutions to the many challenges that lie ahead, including longstanding discrimination of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.
Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, tracks the broad changes that have continued to move the country away from authoritarianism despite the recent and serious backward step of intercommunal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the west of the country.
“The Myanmar government and legislature have demonstrated that they possess the vision and leadership to shift the country decisively away from its authoritarian past”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “But they will inevitably face major challenges, including containing and resolving the intercommunal conflict that has engulfed Rakhine State and reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State”.
In May 2012, the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men ignited long-simmering tensions between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Since June, rioting, violence and mass displacement have become too common. It has not helped that some local authorities have been seen to take the Rakhine side in the conflict. They have for decades actively discriminated against the Rohingya, leaving many without citizenship that they may have long ago qualified for if the law had been applied more fairly.
Unrest in Rakhine State may also be a by-product of the reform process. The transition has created unprecedented space to organise that has been denied for decades, including for long-suppressed ethno-nationalist causes. There is a real risk that the localised conflict in Rakhine State could take on a more general Buddhist-Muslim dimension and spread to other parts of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic country.
The unrest has taken place in the context of President Thein Sein continuing to introduce more democratic policies and consolidating power among reformers. Prisoners have been released, protests allowed, censorship abolished, and cabinet reshuffled to remove or sideline ministers who were seen as too conservative or ineffective.
But challenges lie ahead in advance of the 2015 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) will compete for seats as a fully fledged opposition party. Greater freedom to organise could lead to more confrontational social movements. It will be a challenging time, as the legislature is not always in step with Thein Sein’s administration and has tested its authority, and the NLD has its eye on the next poll. The NLD will have to ensure that its expected electoral success in 2015 does not come at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and support an inclusive and stable transition.
“Social tensions are rising as more freedom allows local conflicts to resurface”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Acting Asia Program Director. “Moral leadership is required now to calm tensions and new compromises will be needed if divisive confrontation is to be avoided”.