Friday, November 9, 2012

Burma’s potential for a nationwide religious war

An armed police officer guards as Muslim refugees stand behind him at a refugee
camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Burma. Pic: AP.
The violence in western Burma between Rohingya and Arakanese has evolved in recent weeks, and now there is a distinct possibility that a religious war is unfolding that could spread far beyond Arakan state. The most concerning sign is the recent attacks by Arakanese and security forces on Kaman Muslims, who had previously lived comfortably alongside Buddhist communities, and who have citizenship (the citizenship issue had been one of the main justifications used by Arakanese and the government for mistreatment of the Rohingya, who are stateless).
Earlier this month a group of monks in Sittwe, the Arakan state capital, released a statement calling for Arakanese to “expose sympathisers of Bengali Kalars [a derogatory term for Rohingya] as national traitors along with photos and spread the information to every township”. A similar message was circulated by monks in Karen state, in eastern Burma, which has a far smaller population of Muslims. It said that anyone who interacted with Muslims – marry, trade with, and so on – would receive “critical punishment”.

It is becoming increasingly hard to dismiss the violence as something local to western Burma. People in Arakan state appear eager to publicise that they are not Muslim: “Hindu boys we met working in the market had a tag hanging around their neck claiming they are Hindu with their home address (issued and signed by the ward leader), and they are not even full citizens,” a foreign NGO worker said of a recent visit to Sittwe in Arakan state.

I had some interesting correspondence recently with another Thailand-based NGO worker who traveled to Bangladesh in late October and met with journalists – Arakanese, Rohingya, and Bangladeshi –  and government officials. Below are some excerpts.

“Both Rohingya and Arakanese reporters gave current anecdotes about small groups on the ground (in plain clothes), operating with impunity by authorities, actively trying to stir up religious conflict. They told detailed stories of daylight attacks on religious buildings, including brazenly burning the Kuran and attacking temples and mosques.

“The Arakanese reporters seem nervous to write about these things as they fear attacks by their own people, but admitted that the authorities, especially the army, are openly trying to organise anti-Muslim activities and it is getting worse. They felt that many Arakanese leaders seem reluctant to carry out these activities again because of the damage they have already suffered and therefore the Tatmadaw [Burma army] is having to take even more aggressive measures to fuel this religious war.”

The NGO worker, who doesn’t want to be named, also recounted discrimination experienced by colleagues in Karen and Karenni state in October.

“Recently several of our partners went back into Karen and Karenni state to renew their Burmese ID’s. In two separate cases, in two separate areas, they said the question asked at the government office was whether they are Muslim. Also, after they “proved” they were not, the authorities explained they are now making a list of all Muslims in their areas. One office official said the list was being prepared to disenfranchise Muslims there.”

To be sure, a lot of the stories being circulated are anecdotal, but put together, it suggests an evolution of this conflict that should be of pressing concern to all stakeholders. Both sides have committee grave abuses, but attempts so far at reconciliation seem to be hitting a brick wall. If it is true however that a belief system, rather than an ethnicity, is now being targeted, then the ramifications could be far-reaching.

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