Rakhine state remains a seedbed of religious and ethnic hatred
November 02, 2013
A SUNNI mosque looks as if it has seen better days. One of the minarets seems close to collapse. But the cool white floor-tiles are spotless, and the carpeted prayer-rooms well-kept. An elderly imam, whose features betray his Arabic ancestry, prepares for noon prayers. No muezzin calls; but the faithful in the town of Thandwe trickle in, some in prayer caps, others bareheaded but with long white shirts over their blue-checked longyis.
Thandwe is in the south of Rakhine state in western Myanmar, once the kingdom of Arakan. The mosque is near its sprawling market, where Muslims, Indians and members of the ethnic-Rakhine majority sit side-by-side, trading fish and fresh vegetables, clothing, hardware and gold.
It all looks peaceful. But a pagoda by the market now houses riot police and soldiers. And Thandwe is under dusk-to-dawn curfew. In early October seven people died, five of them Muslims, as the town and villages nearby endured violence and arson. In one torched village, several hundred were left homeless.
Almost all local Muslims are from a recognised ethnic group, the Kaman. Unlike the Rohingyas in the state’s north, who are stateless since Myanmar regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most Kaman are deemed to be citizens.
The Rakhine, like most Burmese, are Buddhists. But they resent the ethnic-Burman majority, blaming them for their own poverty. (Theirs is the second-poorest state in Myanmar.) Many feel crushed between “Burmanisation” and “Islamisation”. Their state shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Some of the Rakhines’ frustration has been vented on the Muslim Kaman, whom they resent for being more prosperous. Such feelings are exploited by “969”, a Buddhist ginger-group. Its leader, Wirathu, has been inciting Buddhists against Muslims. He visited Thandwe some months ago, and his movement’s 969 signs are now displayed on many shops and houses.
The latest round of violence flared just as Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, visited the area. His government is coming under mounting pressure to ensure the safety of the Muslim population. In a recent report, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, argued that Rakhine remained in a “situation of profound crisis”, and that the violence had fed anti-Muslim feelings in the rest of Myanmar.
At least 190 people lost their lives in last year’s strife. But Buddhist perpetrators have so far gone unpunished. Following the latest violence, however, more than 40 people were arrested, mostly Buddhists, including leaders of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), the main ethnic-Rakhine party.
Even more than elsewhere in Myanmar, violence in Rakhine is a minefield for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s opposition leader. On a visit to Europe in October she argued that “both sides have been subjected to violence” and rejected the term “ethnic cleansing”. This sparked an outcry abroad, but not at home. Even a young Muslim in Thandwe thinks her wise to dodge “a political trap”.
Even as she risks foreign criticism, however, Miss Suu Kyi is unlikely to win the Rakhine vote in the election due in 2015. For many Rakhine, loyalty to their state transcends that even to Myanmar itself. The outside world is exercised about the plight of Rakhine’s Muslims. For the NLD and the government, however, just as worrying is the anger of the ethnic-Rakhine majority, many of whom still hanker for the days of Arakan’s independent glory.