A fellow-member of ASEAN, Myanmar, is wrestling with its own Islamic problem, but in a much more volatile and blood-soaked manner. This week saw another nasty outbreak of violence between Burman Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar, this time in a village called Oakka. It was sparked off by another minor incident, when a young girl apparently bumped into a monk. This set off a chain events that left one person dead and nine injured; reports say that Buddhist mobs torched 77 houses and a couple of mosques.
This follows widespread anti-Muslim riots across central Myanmar in March that left scores dead and thousands homeless—which in turn followed blood-lettings in the western state of Rakhine in June and October last year. What amounted to ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, and particularly in its capital, Sittwe, killed hundreds and drove over 100,000 Rohingya to squalid refugee camps outside the city, where they still forced to live.
The killings in Rakhine, it is clear, inspired a lot of the subsequent upsurge in general anti-Muslim feeling. So there was much resting on the outcome of a government-appointed enquiry into the violence in Rakhine, which finally came out on April 29th. Yet in the end the long-delayed report was pretty much a cop-out. It makes no concessions to Rohingya sentiment and few concrete suggestions that could help the situation there. Some diplomats and UN officials were looking to it for evidence that the reforming state of Myanmar is genuinely prepared to tackle the fundamental issues of race and religion that have destabilised the country since it won its independence from Britain in 1948—but there were no signs of that in this report.
For a start, the unfortunate Rohingyas are referred to throughout the report as “Bengalis”, the derogatory term employed by their enemies to delegitimise their claims to being included as a people rightfully living in Myanmar. “Bengalis” conveys the clear meaning that the Rohingya belong in Bengal (or East Bengal; now Bangladesh) and not in Myanmar. Notch up a victory there to the rioting mobs of Rakhine—they will be very happy about that.
Some others were hoping that this big concession to the anti-Rohingya contingent would be balanced by a commitment from the commission to start giving the Rohingyas some status as citizens, perhaps leading eventually to their full citizenship. The root cause of the Rohingyas’ problems is that under Myanmar’s discriminatory and archaic 1982 Citizenship Act they are denied any form of citizenship, and thus any protection or help from the state. Yet the commission says only that the government should “examine” the citizenship status of people in Rakhine state. That’s an open-ended invitation to the government to do nothing.
No Rohingyas were invited to sit on the 27-man commission, and the bias in favour of the ethnic Rakhine shows throughout. One particularly sinister recommendation, easily open to abuse, is that the Rohingyas be given “family-planning education”. It’s a loud complaint of the Rakhine that their Muslim neighbours “breed too much” (as it was often put to me in Sittwe), and this clearly panders to that prejudice. But as must be very evident from history it’s dangerous to start advocating birth control for just one ethnic group. What sort of message will that send out to the mobs?
Just as worryingly, the report also recommends that the present separation of Rohingya Muslims from the ethnically-cleansed Sittwe and other Rakhine-majority centres be continued, temporarily—on grounds of safety. Again, not very helpful; that more or less justifies the present state of segregation without suggesting any path back to the two communities’ reintegration. Again, pretty much exactly what the more bigoted Rakhine will have wanted to hear.
In practice, unless action is taken now, the “temporary” segregation will slip almost inevitably into a “permanent” segregation—as has happened in almost all similar recent cases around the world, for instance in Sudan’s Darfur region. And the problem of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, now cooped up in their tents and canvas shelters, will only worsen. With the monsoon fast approaching, there are growing fears for the health and safety of the internees. All in all, not a good week for reforming Myanmar, and a pretty disastrous one for the country’s Muslim minority. By Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: AFP)
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