Help to Stop the Violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar

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Sectarian violence and communal mistrust in Myanmar is widespread, being a multi-ethnic nation of circa 55 million. Sectarian violence against specific ethnic nationalities may be exploited by the military government to uphold an “emergency” situation in specific regions of the country, justifying autocratic measures against the population, including the limitation of human rights and civil liberties. The team is of the view that sectarian violence may also be used as an argument to derail the current reform process, should the military authorities feel the reforms become too far-reaching or develop into a political system that will reduce the influence of the military in the long-term, although for the time being the military’s power is protected by the 2008 Constitution. President Thein Sein has been quoted as saying “that the Rakhine violence puts the country's moves towards democracy in danger.” (BBC Asia).

The sectarian violence is particularly of concern, since the Rohingya Muslims are virtually stateless in their own country, as they have been stripped summarily of their citizenship rights in the Citizenship Act 1982. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted people in the world. The Myanmar military authority may particularly exploit the situation of Muslims, considering the Rohingya as a disenfranchised and disempowered minority of little interest to the major population in the country or even internationally.

The 2008 Constitution provides for religious freedom, however it grants also wide reaching exceptions, allowing the regime to intervene and restrict these rights at leisure. The Rohingya Muslims are said to be facing religious persecution by the regime and have been forced to flee their homes in Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh or other predominant Muslim countries.  While the Rohingya claim to be the original and long-standing inhabitants of regions in Rakhine state, their claim to citizenship has been marred by disputes with the majority of ethnic Arakanese, primarily Buddhists. The disputes also involve claims over religious sites that over time intensified hostility between the two groups. At this point it is of interest to note that 89% of Myanmar’s population are affiliated with Theravada Buddhism. It is safe to assume that a majority of the members of the military regime are either practising Buddhists themselves or at least have strong Buddhist leanings. According to eye-witnesses reports in present and past clashes with the Rohingya Muslims, members of the Myanmar military either stood idly by or even fuelled the violence as it fits in with the current “politics” of the regime, supporting Burman Buddhists nationalism that on the ground is spearheaded by the “969”-Movement, a militant group of Buddhist monks under the leadership of Ashin Wirathu.

This does not mean that Buddhists are free of persecution from the military if its convenient to uphold the status quo, as the regime went swiftly against monks during the Saffron Revolution of 2007 protesting the government and incarcerated scores of them in prison.  

The alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by three Rohingya Muslim men triggered the current outbreak of violence in June 2012. Since then, the Rakhine state communities were subject to tit-for-tat violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Rohingya leaders claim that their community took the brunt of the violence with approximately 70% of the victims of Muslim background. International human rights watch dogs seem to confirm this claim, saying that about 250 Muslims are dead and more than 140.000 displaced having lost their homes and livelihood and now living in quite miserable, temporary camps along the Bangladesh border.  

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