Myanmar's volatile Rakhine state risks slipping into radicalism

Graffiti that reads "Rakhines will now drink Muslim blood" is seen on a charred, roofless frame of a once-busy mosque in Pauktaw, where two Rohingya neighbourhoods were set ablaze, in this Nov 2, 2012 file photo. Mired in distrust and seemingly irrec
Graffiti that reads "Rakhines will now drink Muslim blood" is seen on a charred, roofless frame of a once-busy mosque in Pauktaw, where two Rohingya neighbourhoods were set ablaze, in this Nov 2, 2012 file photo. Mired in distrust and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Myanmar's volatile Rakhine state risks deteriorating into radicalism and organised violence unless minimal rights are granted to its persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, the International Crisis Group has warned. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Mired in distrust and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Myanmar's volatile Rakhine state risks deteriorating into radicalism and organised violence unless minimal rights are granted to its persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned. 

But the ICG in a new 45-page report The Politics of Rakhine State, released early on Wednesday morning, also urges a greater understanding of the context of the conflict which has seen some 140,000 minority Rohingya driven out of their homes by violent attacks since 2012, consigned to squalid camps  and facing the prospect of permanent segregation and even disenfranchisement.

The historical sense of grievance of the majority Buddhist Rakhines must also be addressed, the ICG warns. Buddhist Rakhines have a history of resisting Burman dominance, and also fear being swamped by "illegal" Muslim immigrants. 

"The crisis is one of governance and politics, which requires political solutions including finding ways to ease Rakhine fears, while protecting the rights of Muslim communities," the ICG urges.

 There is a history of antagonism, mistrust and conflict between the majority Buddhist Rakhines, and the Rohingya. Myanmar's government, cognisant of international opinion and keen to manage and stabilise the situation in the state, is hampered by a "toxic mix" of factors in a long history of a conflicted border region.

"The binding constraint is the political realities on the ground more than the policies of Naypyitaw" notes the report, which is one of the few to focus not just on the Rohingya issue but on the Rakhine Buddhists, and the overall development of the state that, deprived for long years of any development aid,  is the second poorest in Myanmar. 

With the political temperature rising ahead of a watershed general election a year from now, the volatile situation in the state is a significant threat to the overall success of the democratic transition, the report warns.

Resurgent right-wing Burman Buddhists, and Buddhist Rakhine nationalists, see the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh out to seize the land and Islamise the state. The sense of existential threat has morphed into mistrust of Muslims in general.

New concerns include legislation proposed to Parliament, which would in effect disenfranchise many Rohingya. Also, receiving a form of citizenship under an ongoing verification exercise while containing some glimmer of hope for marginalised Rohingya, is still no guarantee of rights in practice.

Finding avenues of political resolution closed could see a swing towards radicalism and violence, the ICG says.

Political solutions to the situation, which is widely recognised as having tarnished the government's track record, will take years. But the demands and expectations of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities may be impossible to reconcile, it concludes. 

The state needs to hold perpetrators of hate and violence swifty accountable in the short term, the report urges and, as well as long term political measures, the continuation of humanitarian and development assistance was essential, the report noted - and it should be directed towards the state as a whole for the sake of development, partly to address the real grievances of the Rakhines, it says.  

"Views are highly polarised, and there are fears and grievances in all communities," the report says. "Tensions are still high and reconciliation far away."

"In such a context, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected while also finding ways to ease Rakhine fears."

nirmal@sph.com.sg