BANGKOK, Thailand — The accounts circulating around Myanmar’s troubled west coast recall the beginnings of massacres in Bosnia or Rwanda: hacked limbs, pamphlets stoking mob violence, old women passing out iron spikes to vigilantes and whole city wards burned to the ground.
Cheered on by the international community, Myanmar’s post-junta government has promised to end despotism and ethnic warfare. But smoldering enmity between two groups — the majority Buddhists in seaside Rakhine State and a stateless Muslim tribe called the Rohingya — suggests keeping this promise remains difficult.
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The violence began in June with waves of tit-for-tat killings, home invasions and arson sprees in Sittwe, a provincial capital. Testimonies gathered in a new Human Rights Watch report suggest that both sides have suffered torched homes, murder and mutilation at the hands of wild mobs. The internet lit up with images of flaming huts and lifeless bodies in Rakhine State.
But only one side, the majority Buddhists, was permitted to storm rival neighborhoods, largely with impunity. Sittwe’s Muslim quarter has been widely torched and purged, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director with Human Rights Watch. Soldiers and police, he said, did little to stop the mobs. Rohingya who remain in Sittwe reportedly fear venturing outside to buy food in the markets.
“Muslims are noticeably absent from the provincial capital of Sittwe,” Robertson said. Locals’ accounts, he said, suggest that Buddhist mobs enjoyed the tacit support of government security forces. “Many of the Muslim neighborhoods have been burned down ... and the Rakhine community has stated that they don’t want to be situated anywhere near the Muslims. They hope to have segregated communities.”
For now, segregation appears to be working. The largely Rohingya displaced have been driven to more than 60 camps, said Silke Buhr, an information officer with the World Food Program, which has long maintained a presence in remote Rakhine province. Roughly 64,000 remain displaced, she said, from a high of 100,000.
According to government figures, the death toll stands at 78, but Human Rights Watch monitors believe that figure is far too low. “Our research shows that this is a gross underestimate,” Robertson said.
At the heart of the conflict is a pervasive belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya are menacing invaders. Whether the government can mend the divisions that have riven Rakhine State could indicate whether Myanmar’s many fractious ethnic groups can peacefully coexist in the future.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, the public face of the nation’s much-heralded reform movement, believes that segregating the Rohingya is inadequate. He wants them expelled from the country.
On a Myanmar government website, which detailed the president’s meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Thein Sein said it’s “not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas” and proposed their resettlement in a foreign country.
But expelling the Rohingya would be highly impractical. With roughly 800,000 residing in Myanmar, there are simply too many of them to relocate.
Some share a bloodline with ethnic Rohingya who once inhabited coastal sultanates in modern-day Myanmar. Some descend from families brought in by British colonialists from Bangladesh, where Rohingya share Islamic beliefs and physical characteristics with the local population.
But almost all Rohingya are seen by the government as dark-skinned intruders from Bangladesh that must be eventually forced out. The Rohingya contend that they know no other home but Myanmar.
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“They cannot expel us. We’re not going to America or London or wherever,” said Maung Kyaw Nu, president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand. “I love my country, I love my forefathers, and we are glorious citizens of that land. We want to live in peaceful coexistence.”
“Thein Sein, who is he? Are his forefathers from China?” he said. “If so, should he go back there?”
There is a fundamental obstacle to purging Myanmar of the Rohingya: No other country wants to receive them en masse.
Many Rohingya who’ve recently fled to Bangladesh have been pushed back by border guards. Those who’ve slipped through add numbers to the roughly 300,000 who live a bleak existence in crowded refugee camps. “Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country,” said Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s premier, in a recent Al-Jazeera interview. “We cannot bear this burden. You should realize that.”
Even among Myanmar’s politically defiant monks and freedom fighters, many share the establishment’s contempt for the Rohingya. Local monk societies in Sittwe have circulated pamphlets urging locals to cease trade with Rohingya and warn that “Bengalis who dwell on Rakhine land ... are now working for the extinction of Rakhine.”
Along with his peers, revered pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi has publicly denounced the Rohingya for claiming citizenship rights and implored them to leave Myanmar. Even opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, widely considered the voice of Myanmar’s oppressed, has shied from exhibiting sympathy for the Rohingya. (Her party, the National League for Democracy, did not return GlobalPost’s repeated phone calls and emails requesting clarification of its policy views on the Rohingya.)
Adamant that Rohingya are invaders, many in Myanmar simply refer to them as “Bengalis” or, stronger still, “terrorists.” Some of the groups vowing to defend the Rohingya are not the sort of friends that help reverse this notion.
In a statement obtained by Agence France-Presse, Pakistani terror network Tehreek-e-Taliban vowed to avenge the Rohingya by attacking Myanmar’s government and citizens living abroad. The Islamic Defenders Front, an Indonesia-based vigilante group, has threatened to wage jihad on the Rohingyas’ behalf.
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Unlike many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups — such as the Shan, the Karen and the Kachin — the Rohingya have no functional armed resistance wing. “We want to get everything through non-violence,” Maung Kyaw Nu said. But the government’s treatment of the Rohingya, he said, is “inviting armed resistance.”
Bloody warfare between ethnic groups is exactly the sort of horror that reformist leaders have pledged to overcome. But the government’s answer to the Rohingya dilemma — forced segregation and alleged collusion with vigilantes — indicates that ethnic peace will not come easily, said Human Rights Watch's Robertson.
“It’s an early warning,” he said, “that this test is going to be much harder than the international community has assumed.”