Does the conflict brewing in the Rakhine State of Myanmar have implications for regional security, besides hurting the national reconciliation process? What explains the sudden spurt in sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the Rakhine state? Where is the violence heading?
Why are there sectarian tensions? Why is the violence erupting now?
There have been adequate reports in the public domain that highlight the social fault lines between the two communities, which have been dormant for a long time, but with occasional violent outbursts. Why did it erupt now?
While, it is convenient to accuse the two communities for being equal participants in orchestrating the violence, such a simplistic analysis of the problem will not enable the stakeholders to take right measures to address the social imbalance.
At one level, violence between the two communities is almost a given as both share the same resources in the region. The neglect by the state, in the recent past, has resulted in a scenario of scarce resources. Policies pursued by the Government of Myanmar, which till recently was a military state marked by a high degree of political repression, failure of governance and lack of political representation, immensely contributed to the backwardness and poverty in the Rakhine state.
It is natural that the struggle for limited resources in such an environment, without political representation and good governance, is bound to pit the communities against each other. This could be an explanation for the violence between the Rohingyas and the Rakhines. While the Rohingyas are considered as being stateless, the economic and political status of the Buddhist Arakanse has not been any different.
At the second level, it is clearly a question of competing narratives, with the state clearly identifying with one community. Both the communities, historically, have never lived in harmony in the Rakhine state and there were tensions in the past as well. The Buddhists Rakhines consider themselves as the original inhabitants of the land and perceive the Rohingyas as “Bengali settlers” from South Asia. On the other hand, the Rohingyas also consider the Rakhine state as their home land with generational linkages.
However, what has turned the dice clearly in favour of the Buddhists was the 1982 Nationality Law, which declared that the Rohingyas, along with a few other communities, did not belong to Myanmar. More than the social fault line, it was this legal pronouncement which placed the Rohingyas at the lower end of the social hierarchy within the Rakhine State. The Rohingyas have no access to education, travel facilities and employment opportunities, and are bound to come into conflict with the Buddhists, who suffer from no such disabilities. With such a backdrop, a spark was all that was required to ignite the hostile situation. This spark was provided by the incident of the rape of a Buddhist woman in May 2012.
Implications for national reconciliation and regional security
The fundamental problem is not the communal schism between the two communities. It is rather rooted in the failure of the state, which until recently had kept the communities under a repressive blanket. Now the differences have come to the fore, coinciding with the country's efforts towards a political transition. The reimposition of the martial law is clearly not an answer to the problem. In fact, it was the martial law that led the two societies to this juncture.
The prolonged violence is bound to have its repercussions on the national reconciliation process. To rebuild the nation, where the communities have high (and possibly conflicting) expectations, the new system and leadership would need a sustained period of calm and stability as a pre-requisite. New clashes and violence would invite martial law and inflict new wounds, even while the old ones are yet to heal.
The leadership will have to factor in the larger political calculations in the decision-making process. There is considerable pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to take a stand on the persisting violence. However, she is clearly caught in a bind as defending one group would not only offend the other, but would add to the existing spectre of hatred and discrimination. This would neither be good for her, who is trying to position herself as a national leader cutting across multiple ethnic communities nor for her party, which aspires to become a representative political organization, in the true sense of the term.
At the regional level, the violence could have ramifications on the Myanmar-Bangladesh and Myanmar-Thailand relations. Bangladesh has already rejected batches of Rohingyas attempting to seek refuge, and its media is largely supportive of Dhaka's push-back tactics. In such a scenario, the refugee outflow is bound to turn towards Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Thailand has also not been a great host to the Rohingyas.
As the old order changes, there are bound to be new conflicts, which have both domestic and regional ramifications. This will have also have an impact on the next generation Muslim Rohingya youth, who have been denied nation, education, work, and in short humanity.
(This analysis is a part of an IPCS initiative – Conflict Alert - within the Armed Conflicts in South Asia Programme. The objective of these Conflict Alerts is to attempt an 'early warning' to highlight the nature of threat and negative conflict transformation).
See also, Bibhu Prasad Routray's Conflict Alert: Impact of Communal Clashes on Myanmar's Reform Project for more on the subject.