Geopolitics

Ethnic Violence in Myanmar: Impact on India
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 11 Dec , 2012

Burnt house during ethnic violence

Ethnic violence has once again flared up in Myanmar’s Rakhine state which due to the communal overtones of the conflict could have potential security implications for India. Myanmar has a small Muslim population – about 2 million people comprising 3.8 per cent of the state’s population. A considerable number of Myanmar’s Muslims inhabit Rakhine state (formerly Arakan province) which stretches along most of Myanmar’s coast up to the Bay of Bengal and borders the Chittagong province of Bangladesh. The Rohingya, as the Rakhine Muslims are called number over 75,000 and form a sizeable minority in Rakhine’s mainly Buddhist population of 3.83 million people. The Buddhists mainly inhabit the coastal belt and the Rohingya inhabit the area to its North where they are concentrated in the Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung areas where they constitute about 91 per cent of the population. The Rohingya speak Bengali and have ethnic and religious similarity to the Bengali of Chittagong Province. This fact lies at the heart of the conflict.

As the Rohingya is perceived to be an outsider, government policies for these people have reflected local attitudes, concerns and prejudices.

In Myanmar, there are no questions asked about the citizenship of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups across the state, the majority of which straddle the country’s borderlands with India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. The Rohingya are however viewed by the state as outsiders. A typical post-colonial “indigene-settler” dispute exists in Rakhine state with the Buddhist Rakhine considering themselves as the original inhabitants of the land and perceiving the Muslim Rohingya as “Bengali settlers”. The Rohingya make conflicting historical claims to their rights as Myanmar citizens. However, as per Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya, along with some other communities were not among the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups entitled to citizenship. Since Bangladesh also rejects them, the move effectively rendered stateless 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar. Even the word “Rohingya” is widely disputed. Buddhists say it was made up to obscure the Muslim population’s South Asian heritage.

As the Rohingya is perceived to be an outsider, government policies for these people have reflected local attitudes, concerns and prejudices. The Rohingya has thus been subjected to systematic state policies of seclusion, restrictions and arbitrary treatment imposed upon them by successive governments. These policies led to violence in 1978 and then again in 1991/92, forcing many Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. As per a UN report, Bangladesh currently hosts about 200,000 Rohingya. Many have also migrated to Malaysia and the Middle East.

To prove his credentials as an original inhabitant of the area, the Rohingya has to satisfy the authorities that their three previous generations lived in the area. Permission also has to be sought for marriage where restrictions of having not more than two children are imposed. This question of citizenship has fuelled the two bloody spasms of sectarian unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims since June this year.

Over 200 people have died and more than 100,000, mostly Muslim, have fled their homes.

Over 200 people have died and more than 100,000, mostly Muslim, have fled their homes. The issue has now become the most sensitive one in Myanmar and has galvanised an almost nationalistic furore against the Rohingya. Myanmar’s on-going transition to democratic rule has opened the way for Buddhist monks to stage anti-Rohingya protests demanding their expulsion, and for vicious anti-Rohingya rants to swamp internet forums. Graffiti on the walls spew hatred, ominously warning that the “Rakhine will drink Kala blood”. ‘Kala’, meaning black is a pejorative epithet used for South Asians, but here specifically for the Rohingya. Many people are now going beyond the use of the expletive ‘kala’ and are referring to the Rohingya as terrorist. Myanmar’s reformist leader, President Thein Sein, has explicitly stated that “it is impossible to accept those Rohingya who are not our ethnic nationals”. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the renowned freedom fighter and Nobel Laureate steered clear of the issue when asked about the Rohingya issue during her recent visit to India. To many in Myanmar, it is an issue of sovereignty and not one of bullying the minority. The battle lines appear to be firmly drawn with the Buddhist majority viewing the Rohingya as terrorists and enemies of the state.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy from authoritarian rule has enabled many young monks to participate in the campaign to oust Muslims from the country. The call is for Muslims who cannot prove three generations of legal residence to be put into camps and sent to any country willing to take them. Hatred between Muslims and Buddhists that was kept in check during five decades of military rule is now out in the open.

The outbreak of sectarian violence in October this year was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl for which Muslims were blamed. This led to reprisals by the Buddhists and the conflict intensified with Monasteries being burned in Muslim-majority areas, and Mosques being destroyed where Buddhists were in a majority. While political leaders describe the near total segregation of Muslims as temporary, the ground situation suggests a permanent rift which would be difficult to heal. Many Monks believe that Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.” The refugee problem is thus set to intensify.

…the plight of the Rohingya Muslim can ignite passions in some parts of India and lead to violence being orchestrated against the state.

How would the above impact on India? The Kokrajhar riots in July-August this year resulted in people from Northeast India being targeted by Muslim groups in Mumbai, Bangalore and other places and being forced to flee back home. Muslim ire was driven not just by the violence in Kokrajhar which led to thousands of people fleeing their homes but also to the conflict in Rakhine. Apparently, the plight of the Rohingya Muslim can ignite passions in some parts of India and lead to violence being orchestrated against the state. This would need to be guarded against and instigators of violence dealt with firmly at the very first instance.

A more serious concern is however the issue of refugees. Policies of the Myanmar Government could lead to a mass exodus of Muslims to Bangladesh. With limited opportunities in that country, a northward push by the Bangladesh government could find the Rohingya landing up in Assam. Vote bank politics may well result in their being absorbed in the country which would further fuel animosity in the region and lead to an escalation of conflict in the Northeast. This is a challenge which would require sensitive and delicate handling and would need constant monitoring.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch

Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).

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