(Photo Source: UN News Centre)
Who, what, where?
Violence in Burma’s western Rakhine State has left hundreds dead, thousands of homes razed to the ground and over 140,000 displaced – dependent on international aid for food, water and basic health facilities. And since mob attacks against INGO compounds prompted the mass evacuation of all humanitarian organisations from the area, the situation has deteriorated severely, with the UN warning that the situation could reach critical levels within a week.
So what exactly is going on?
The Rohingya are a persecuted minority Muslim group, hailing from Rakhine State where many have lived for centuries. They are denied citizenship and subject to endemic and state-sponsored discrimination and abuse so severe that rights groups have identified actions as crimes against humanity. The Rakhine people, government and many Burmese reject the ethnicity and name Rohingya, favouring ‘Bengali’ and consider the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Bangladesh refuses to recognise the Rohingya.
In a broad sweep, the violence in Rakhine can be characterised as ethno-religious and symptomatic of a much wider anti-Muslim sentiment that is on the rise across the country. As reforms have allowed greater space for public dissent, so too has nationalist Buddhist fervour and hate speech against Muslim minorities – exemplified by the anti-Muslim ‘969’ campaign and virulently anti-Muslim monk Wirathu.
Targeted attacks have been perpetrated against Muslim communities in Yangon and elsewhere – such as the killings in the central town of Meikthila in 2013, when houses and shops were burned, and over 40 murdered, including a group of students and their teachers massacred at a school.
Sectarian tensions are not new to Burma, and conflict not isolated to religious divides – Burma is home to some of the world’s longest running civil wars (e.g. Kachin conflict) where appalling human right abuses have been committed against minority groups. However, the waves of anti-Muslim violence starting in 2012 is the most severe seen in decades – and the Rohingya have to date suffered the brunt of this violence.
Rakhine State suffers extreme levels of poverty, and the dominant population, the Rakhine people- echo grievances of longstanding neglect from the central state. Some have suggested a political root for recent events, with reports of groups of extremist youths turning up to carry out the worst of the violence – seeking, ostensibly, to destabilise the local area and garner support for the leading USDP party.
Certainly much of the violence is fed by fear: rumours abound that if officially recognised, the Rohingya would demand a separate state within Rakhine – or even attempt to establish Muslim rule and ‘wipe out’ Buddhists – fears that are happily fanned by extremist monks such as Wirathu, and not helped by violence against Burmese migrants in Malaysia.
So what is happening now? I hear that all the INGOs have been kicked out?
After several months of relative calm, the situation has deteriorated rapidly since Christmas when reports began filtering out of a massacre of 48 in the northern village of Du Char Yar Tan. The government has repeatedly denied these reports.
MSF stated that it had treated 22 people for injuries in the area, adding fire to a simmering hatred of INGOs in Rakhine State – most of whom are seen as partisan for their needs-based approach to aid delivery (which ultimately ends up skewed towards Rohingya, who constitute the vast majority of victims). Protests against INGOs in general and MSF in particular escalated until in March all MSF operations were suspended nationwide (later resumed, except in Rakhine). Further protests degenerated into mob violence, systematically targeted at INGO compounds and forcing agencies to evacuate. Negotiations are now ongoing for UN and INGO return.
These attacks appears to have been exacerbated in part by Wirathu’s visit to the region in recent weeks, to conduct a series of anti-Muslim rallies, and the UN-backed national census –which until recently would have allowed Rohingya to register. Under pressure, this has now been rescinded and Rohingyas forced to register as Bengali or not at all.