A warning by the United Nations that up to 30,000 people have been displaced by violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state draws urgent attention to one of the more serious intra-state conflicts in South-east Asia today. The latest round of that conflict began when "ethnic armed organisations", as described by the UN, clashed with state security forces. Sixty-nine suspected insurgents and 17 soldiers and police have been killed. More recently, four ethnic armed groups attacked the security forces on the northern border with China. Like any other country imperilled by such attacks, Myanmar owes it to its citizens to check the insurrectionists. To not do so would be to inflate the radicals' sense of impunity.
As serious as the violence is the movement of thousands. At issue is the destiny of the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority, believed to number around 1.1 million. They are not treated as citizens or one of the recognised ethnic groups living in Myanmar because of their provenance in East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh. They are seen as outsiders from beyond the border, although many of them have known only life in Myanmar. Their existence, even when it is not threatened by outbreaks of sectarian violence, is circumscribed by what human rights activists call discriminatory laws that curtail their freedom of movement, education and employment. The denial of land and property rights adds to their problems.
The plight of the Rohingya was dramatised by last year's mass migration of thousands of them by sea, in one of South-east Asia's worst refugee crises. While those waves subsided, the dire condition of these unwanted people has manifested itself again in the outbreak of violence in Rakhine.
The civilian government and the military, which retains considerable power, should not ignore the dangers of leaving this situation unattended to. While it is right to move against the militants who attacked security forces, Yangon must recognise that insurgents tend to act most forcefully in desperate situations. Hence, the Rohingya issue must be addressed in its entirety if any peace is to achieved.
Myanmar has set up various commissions to study the sectarian issues in Rakhine. Hopes are now riding on a high-level advisory commission headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Ultimately, what will make a big difference is political recognition that the Rohingya on Myanmar soil deserve the basic dignity of being protected by the state, with retribution reserved only for those who take up arms against it. International support for Myanmar's political progress under Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will waver if the plight of the Rohingya is once again left to fester. Though bridging differences among a country's ethnic minorities is always a formidable task, it is one that she must tackle forthwith.