BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Ethnic violence in western Myanmar could threaten the country’s stability, and President Thein Sein and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi need to offer “decisive moral leadership” to stop it from spreading further, a report by International Crisis Group (ICG) released Monday said.
Leader of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi is hugely popular in the country but has been criticised by ethnic and rights groups for her failure to take a clear stand against the violence in Rakhine State.
Longstanding tensions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingyas turned violent in the state in early June and again in October, killing at least 160 people and displacing more than 110,000 - mostly Muslims. Rakhine groups have been allowed to issue a call to arms without censorship from the authorities.
“The government has been unable to contain the violence … and extremist rhetoric has gone largely unchallenged by the authorities and the opposition,” the report said.
“There is the potential for similar violence elsewhere, as nationalism and ethno-nationalism rise and old prejudices resurface,” ICG said.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric has come from political parties, some law enforcement officials, militant monks and ordinary Burmese - some of whom claim the Rohingyas are planning to colonise Rakhine.
There have been attacks against Muslims in other parts of Myanmar too, but none as co-ordinated as those in Rakhine State.
The fighting in Rakhine State has led to the segregation of the two communities, with tens of thousands of Muslims confined in camps, unable or unwilling to go out.
Last week, Medecins Sans Frontieres told AlertNet it was unable to provide healthcare to the displaced due to threats against its staff by hardline Rakhine nationalists.
Rights groups say the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, face some of the worst discrimination in the world. But Rakhines and other Burmese, including monks, revered symbols of democracy during protests in 2007, view them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy.
“Local police and riot police are overwhelmingly made up of Rakhine Buddhists who are at best unsympathetic to Muslim victims and at worst allegedly complicit in the violence,” the report added.
The report said disbanding a paramilitary border force known as “Nasaka”, seen locally as the most corrupt and abusive government agency in the area, would help address both Rohingya concerns of abusive practices and go some way to addressing Rakhine concerns of lax or corrupt border security.
The October attacks appear well coordinated by extremists and directed towards Muslims in general, including Kaman Muslims, and not just Rohingya, ICG said. Kaman Muslims are one of Myanmar's 135 official ethnic groups.
A Reuters investigation paints a similar picture, with the wave of attacks organised and led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks and abetted at times by local security forces.
“This is a dangerous situation for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that aspires to be a democracy after decades of isolation and authoritarian rule,” the report said.
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
The violence “represents a deeply disturbing backward step”, said ICG, which has commended the Southeast Asian nation’s reformist government in its previous reports.
“This is a time when political leaders must rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion rather than just following it,” the report said, referring to broad public support for Rakhines and lack of sympathy towards Rohingyas.
“A failure to do so will be to the detriment of the country, and can also do serious damage to the reputations of the government and the (NLD),” it added.
The report praised Thein Sein and his government for its democratic reforms, which include the freeing of political prisoners, abolishing pre-publication censorship, and implementing freedom of assembly laws. Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took office in March 2011 after decades of military rule.
But there’s a tough road ahead, with the latest Rakhine violence casting “a dark cloud over the reform process”, ICG said.
CHALLENGES FOR 2015 ELECTION
Other challenges for the government include the difficulty of reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State in northern Myanmar where fighting has displaced around 75,000 people since June 2011. The government also faces rising tensions over land grabbing, and environmental and social concerns over foreign-backed infrastructure and mining projects.
Newfound freedom to organise and demonstrate also means there’s potential for more radical and confrontational social movements, ICG said.
And there’s a danger that if the NLD wins the bulk of parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election – a likely outcome if the elections are free and fair – non-NLD groups may be marginalised and this would increase tensions, the report said.
“An NLD landslide may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalising three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces,” said the report.
NLD needs to ensure that its expected electoral success does not come “at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and ensure an inclusive and stable transition”.
This could mean NLD supporting a more proportional election system that would create more representative legislatures and forming an alliance, particularly with ethnic parties.