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Rage in Rakhine: Democratization and the specter of latent conflict in Myanmar

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on June 8, 2012
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On 04 June 2012, authorities in the western state of Rakhine, Myanmar were roused by the reported massacre of 9 Rohingya Muslims by suspected Buddhist vigilantes. The incident marred the rosy picture presented by the Thein Sein government. Democratization appears on track in Myanmar with the conduct of relatively credible elections in April and “new freedom” even for the regime’s harshest critic—Aung San Suu Kyi. Strife between the Muslims and Buddhist in Rakhine illustrates the multiple drivers of conflict, on top of ethnic tensions with minorities (i.e the Karens in the east) and the pro-democracy movement centered in Yangon. The massacre illustrates that while democratization seems apace, the rule of law remains elusive.

Rohingya Muslims have been described as the “world’s most persecuted people”—existing for decades under the harsh military dictatorship in Myanmar. Within the dominant Burmese Buddhist state, Rohingyas are denied the most basic of rights such as travel, education, and even the number of children a couple can sire; prompting observers to dub the region, Mayanmar’s Gaza. The recent violence was in reprisal over the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a gang of Rohingya men. It has been reported that the proximate cause of the incident was the distribution of inflammatory flyers targeted against the Rohingya hours before the Sunday evening incident.

Naypyidaw’s belated vow for “legal action” against the instigators had been met by tepid response and protests in Sittwe. The disjuncture between government response and the need for a nuanced understanding of the situation is painfully brought to light by the mishandling of the Myanmar state media, which referred to the Rohingya as “kalar”—foreigner.

Myanmar’s democracy project remains saddled by the lack of rule of law. Indeed, while policy had been recently rolled out to welcome back Rohingya refugees from neighboring Bangladesh, a fundamental issue remains unsettled. The Rohingyas remain excluded from the body politic. Recognition of minority rights is a keystone of substantive democratization beyond its procedural manifestations such as elections.

It is troubling that the Rohingya may resort to violence to counter the oppressive conditions imposed upon them—not against the state, but as a backlash against the majority Burmese population. Further incentivizing the use of political violence is the relative success enjoyed by armed and organized ethnic groups. To illustrate, the Karen National Union and its military wing exercise control over a swathe of eastern Myanmar, which includes functions of governance such as taxation and elections. As such, they are able to extract concessions from Naypyidaw and enjoy a semblance of relative autonomy.

And what of the prospects of the Rohingya mimicking the non-violent, electoral struggle waged by Aung San SuuKyi’s pro-democracy movement? An organized and politically-conscious Rohingya may dismiss non-violent struggle as a viable option only to the ethnic Burmese.

Simply put, the specter of conflict looms as the Rohingya is seemingly pushed to come to the belated realization of the Maoist dictum that “[political] power flows from the barrel of a gun”.

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