Ethnic violence in Myanmar seems ′neverending′ | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 11.06.2012

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Ethnic violence in Myanmar seems 'neverending'

Sectarian violence has engulfed Myanmar's frontier state of Rakhine in recent days, with clashes between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups. Tension between the two groups is not new and there are few solutions in sight.

The cycle of revenge attacks between ethnic groups in the border state of Rakhine is posing a new challenge to Myanmar's reformist government, with the repercussions now rippling across the border into neighboring Bangladesh.

The latest surge in sectarian unrest began with the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslims, late last month. Within days, the response had turned more brutal, with at least 10 Muslims killed when they were pulled off a bus in the Taungup township.

Last Friday, Muslims belonging to the Rohingya ethnic minority are alleged to have run amok in the town of Maung Taw, burning down hundreds of houses and killing seven people.

By Monday, many Rohingya were taking flight, with groups of men - apparently ethnic Rakhine Buddhists - roaming the streets of the state capital Sittwe carrying sticks and knives.

Announcing a state of emergency in the region on Sunday, President Thein Sein warned of the possible terrible outcome, with security forces drafted into the area.

President Thein Sein

Thein Sein has warned that the violence might spread

"The situation could deteriorate and could extend beyond Rakhine state if we are killing each other with such sectarianism, endless hatred, the desire for vengeance and anarchy," Thein Sein said.

Attacks 'well-planned and organized'

However, the president of the British-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), Nurul Islam, said he believed that the attacks had in part been orchestrated by the security forces themselves.

He claimed Muslim residents had been fired upon for breaking a curfew when they fled homes that Rakhine extremists had set alight.

"All of this is well planned and organized. The leading Rakhine political organization is behind this," he told Deutsche Welle.

Under Myanmar law, the Rohingya are denied citizenship, with many of the Buddhist majority in the state describing them as illegal immigrants. Many Rohingya travel between Myanmar and Bangladesh and the government says their presence in Myanmar does not date back to 1814 - a requirement that needs to be met under the country's citizenship laws. Bangladesh claims the Rohingya are from Myanmar.

On Monday, the Bangladeshi authorities turned away boats carrying more than 300 Rohingya away.

Meanwhile, about 100 Rohingyas demonstrated at the UN's regional headquarters in Thailand calling for the organization to intervene to prevent "genocide."

"There's a humanitarian crisis looming," said Islam. "All the Muslim shops have been looted and food including rice has been seized and carried away. People are already starving."

"I blame the central government, as well," he added. "They could send armed forces and control the situation within minutes. They want to ethnically cleanse Arakhan state, if they don't, why don't they control the situation?"

'A familiar pattern'

However, Hans-Bernd Zöllner, an expert on Myanmar at Hamburg University, was skeptical. "The government's power is a little bit overestimated," he said. "They don't have the power to do whatever they might like to do. This is something that applies in many border regions where ethnic problems appear, not only Rakhine."

Policemen arrive in their vehicle during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities

Security forces have been sent in to the area

According to the UN, there are nearly 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar. Zöllner says the current crisis represents a fresh resurfacing of an old feud, in just one of a myriad of ethnic conflicts in the country. The latest events, he said, follow a typical pattern where sexual violence - or allegations of it - sparks ethnic conflict.

"There is a long tradition of Buddhist-Muslim tension in the country that goes back to the colonial period and the nationalist movement in the 1930s, when Muslim Indians were always scapegoated instead of the British because they were seen as weak. The British could not be attacked," said Zöllner. "From time to time, something will flare up."

"It seems to be a neverending story," he said. "It depends on so many factors. Unless the government in Myanmar can find a solution that satisfies the Rakhine people and come to terms with Bangladesh so that there might be some progress, there appears to be no solution in the pipeline."

Author: Richard Connor
Editor: Anne Thomas

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