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Myanmar violence

October 30, 2012

FRESH communal violence has erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, between the majority Buddhist population and members of the minority Rohingya Muslim community. The scale of the violence is disturbing; Myanmar authorities say some 90 people have been killed in the latest bout of bloodletting while the UN has said over 26,000 people, mostly Muslim, have been displaced over the last week or so. Hundreds of homes have also been torched in the rioting. Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch point to ‘extensive destruction’ in a Rohingya-dominated area. Earlier in June, similarly horrific violence was witnessed in Rakhine after the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman, blamed on Rohingya men. The incident sparked savage reprisals and the Myanmar military had to be called in to restore order.

Sectarian and ethnic strife is unfortunately quite common in Myanmar. The transition from decades of military rule to a quasi-democracy in 2010 has failed to bring relief to many of the minority groups unhappy with their treatment in Myanmar. This is particularly true of the Rohingya, who have been described by the UN as amongst the world’s most persecuted minorities. Numbering about 800,000 in Myanmar, the Rohingya are a stateless people as the government does not extend citizenship rights to them; even amongst the general population the community faces widespread discrimination. And whenever there is communal violence, the Rohingya often have nowhere to flee; neighbouring Bangladesh, which already hosts thousands of Rohingyas, has turned back refugees as it did in June. But perhaps what is most disappointing is the silence of Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi over the plight of the Rohingya. Ms Suu Kyi, who struggled against the military junta for years, has maintained an ambiguous stance on the ethnic strife in Rakhine, perhaps due to the impact any defence of the Rohingya may have on her party’s electoral fortunes; some of her party’s leading officials have reportedly made openly anti-Muslim statements. Considering her stature, Ms Suu Kyi must rise above communal politics and raise a voice for the Rohingyas so that a permanent solution to Myanmar’s sectarian strife can be found.