By B. Raman
A Buddhist girl belonging to the ethnic Rakhine community was allegedly raped and murdered by three Muslims at a village near Kyaukphyu in the Rakhine State (old Arakan State ) of Myanmar on May 28,2012.
On June 3, 2012, over 100 Buddhists (Rakhines) stopped a bus in Taunggote in the Rakhine state, allegedly dragged out 10 Muslims and killed them. They suspected that these Muslims were involved in the rape and murder of the Buddhist girl. Only two of the Muslims killed were locals. The remaining eight were from Yangon (Rangoon). They were returning to Yangon after visiting a mosque in the Rakhine State on pilgrimage.
The same evening hundreds of Muslims gathered outside a police station in the capital town of Sittwe and threw stones. The Police managed to disperse them after using tear-gas and opening fire with rubber bullets.
The next day, Aung San Suu Kyi met representatives of the Muslim community in Yangon and urged them to remain calm and let the law take its course against the Buddhist culprits.
The Maungdaw Township of the Rakhine State, where the Muslims constitute about 96 per cent of the population, saw serious incidents of anti-Government and anti-Buddhist violence on June 8 and 9. Muslims, coming out of a mosque after prayers, went on a rampage attacking a government building, a police station and some primary schools for Buddhist children. Seven Buddhists were killed and an estimated 500 houses were burnt down. The Police shifted the Buddhist residents to refugee camps. Incidents of arson were reported from Sittwe. The Police opened fire at Maungdaw and imposed a curfew. But this did not improve the situation.
In the meanwhile, there were reports of rival demonstrations in Yangon by small groups of local Buddhists and Muslims.
On the night of June 10, 2012, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the State, authorising the Army to assist the civilian authorities to restore law and order.
In a nine-minute speech televised nationally, Thein Sein said that the violence in the Rakhine State was fanned by dissatisfaction harbored by different religious and ethnic groups, hatred and the desire for revenge.
He added: “I would like to call upon the people, political parties, religious leaders and the media to join hands with the government with a sense of duty, to help restore peace and stability and to prevent further escalation of violence.
“If both sides kill each other in hatred and revenge, putting anarchy before everything, the violence is in danger of spreading outside Rakhine State.
“I would like everyone to take special care because of the damage that could be done to the peace, stability, democratic process and development of our country during its period of transformation, if the unrest spreads,” he said.
Buddhists constitute about 89 per cent of Myanmar’s total population and Muslims about four per cent. The remaining seven per cent consist of Christians and animists.
The Muslims in Myanmar are of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi origin. The Muslims of Indian and Chinese origin have had no problems in integrating themselves with the rest of the society. The Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, known as Rohingyas, who speak Bengali, and who live in the Rakhine State in the areas bordering Bangladesh ( about 750,000), have not been able to integrate themselves with the local Buddhists though Muslims in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh generally have no problems in living together with Bengali Buddhists.
The Rohingyas have not been given full citizenship rights by successive Myanmar Governments.
International human rights organisations such as the Amnesty International describe the Rohingyas as a highly persecuted ethnic and religious minority group in Myanmar. The feelings of alienation of the Rohingyas had led to violent clashes with the local Buddhists in February 2001 resulting in the imposition of curfew.
The Myanmar authorities look upon the Rohingya Muslims as illegal Bengali immigrants from BD and do not treat them on par with other ethnic groups. There is a feeling among the Rohingyas that even Suu Kyi, who has been supportive of the ethnic rights of other minority groups, has not shown much empathy for the Rohingyas.
The Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami of Bangladesh, normally referred to as HUJI (B), had played an active role in the jihad against the Soviet and Afghan troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Its members studied in the Pakistani madrasas and fought as members of different Afghan mujahideen groups, after having been trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The HUJI (B) also recruited a number of Rohingya Muslims from the Arakan area of Myanmar and took them to Afghanistan for fighting against the Soviet and Afghan troops.
If there is an aggravation of the feelings of alienation of the Rohingyas there could be a danger of its being exploited by HUJI (B) to revive its activities in the areas across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
The Rakhine State has rich oil and gas resources and has attracted many oil/gas companies from China, India and other countries. The Chinese, who have already struck gas, have undertaken the construction of an oil/gas terminal port at Kyaukphyu, gas/oil pipelines from the port to Yunnan and a railway line connecting Yunnan with the Rakhine State.
From the point of view of Myanmar’s economy, the Rakhine State is important and no Myanmar Government can afford instability there. The only saving grace is that the present incidents were started by the Buddhists and not by the Muslims. If the clashes continue and threaten to spread to areas outside the Rakhine State, the position of President Thein Sein, who has initiated a policy of political and economic reforms and reconciliation with Suu Kyi, may be weakened tempting the pro-China hardline elements in the Army to stage a comeback.