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People wait as more people displaced by the recent violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in Kyuk Phyu township (Photo: Kaung Htet/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

A new sense of identify

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
October 24, 2014

Myanmar is increasingly under fire over its treatment of the Rohingya minority in the Rakhine state. The International Crisis Group stresses the importance of creating a new sense of identity for the community.


Myanmar's Rakhine State has a history of extreme poverty, under-development, as well as intercommunal and inter-religious conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya - a Muslim group not recognized as citizens in Myanmar. Several outbreaks of violence since 2012 have claimed the lives of hundreds and left some 140,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya. And with the country moving closer to national elections at the end of next year, tensions are likely to rise.

Against this backdrop, the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged the Myanmar government in a new 45-page report to clarify the legal status of the Rohingya and find way to create a new sense of national identity embracing the country's cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. The report, released on October 22 under the title "Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State," examines both the issues fueling the decades-long conflict as well as he government's response.

Jonathan Prentice, the ICG's Chief Policy Officer, says in a DW interview that the government faces a difficult challenge in that the expectations of the Buddhist and Muslim communities are very difficult to reconcile. What is needed is a political process that all communities feel could deliver some of what they want, he adds.

Jonathan Prentice
Prentice: 'Citizenship for undocumented Rohingya is very important'Image: International Crisis Group

DW: What are the key findings of your report?

Jonathan Prentice: That the Rakhine Buddhists are also a long-oppressed minority, and that their aspirations and fears must be acknowledged if solutions are to be found, while also frankly recognising that the aspirations, fears and desperate situation of many Muslim communities also require effective solution.

Moreover, the government faces a difficult challenge in that the expectations of the Buddhist and Muslim communities are very difficult to reconcile - the binding constraint on moving the situation forward are the strong and polarized views on the ground, not merely the political will of the central government.

We also found that citizenship for undocumented Rohingya is very important, but will not be enough; and that a coercive process that forces them to identify as Bengali could spark violence.

What lies at the core of the conflict in Rakhine state?

A toxic mix of the colonial legacy, decades of marginalization and oppression under authoritarian rule, and social and religious factors.

You say in your report that the government has taken steps to respond, but why have these efforts failed so far?

They have not necessarily failed, but they have not yet resolved the problem. In some ways, this is to be expected - complex, deeply-rooted conflicts take years to resolve. What is needed is a political process that all communities feel could deliver some of what they want; so far, that has not been the case, as both Rakhine and Rohingya are suspicious of the intentions of the central government. Coupled with that more effective measures are required to protect the rights of those who are under attack.

You argue that clarifying the legal status of those without citizenship is important. But many Muslims will likely refuse to identify as "Bengali," fearing this is a precursor to denial of citizenship. Why does the government refuse to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnicity and citizens of Myanmar?

Because they believe it is a recent political construct rather than a genuine ethnic identity, and because they see the name as a claim to indigenous status that they reject, and that Rakhine Buddhists are adamantly opposed to it, fearing that it is a precursor to a push for a separate administrative region carved out of the state.

What must the country do to halt the cycle of extremist violence?

Create a more credible and inclusive political process to address the situation; make stronger efforts to prosecute those involved in violence, and pursue a negotiated citizenship process rather than a coercive one. The international community can push for these things, while also recognizing that the government is constrained by national public sentiment and strongly-held views in the Rakhine community, so that pushing too far could spark violence and potentially make the situation worse.

A Myanmar Buddhist monk holds a sign as he takes part in a demonstration against the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Yangon on October 15, 2012 (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages)
Prentice: 'Both Rakhine and Rohingya are suspicious of the intentions of the central government'Image: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages

The international community can also ensure that the rights of vulnerable communities are protected in any process, and continue providing essential humanitarian and development support to all communities.

In you report you argue that Myanmar needs to create a new sense of national identity. How can this be achieved?

This is an ongoing national reflection and debate as the country emerges from decades of authoritarianism and isolation. The peace process is driving some of this, but a broader debate on diversity and inclusion is needed, in which not just the nation's government but also other political leaders need to play a constructive role.

Jonathan Prentice is the International Crisis Group's Chief Policy Officer.

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