New political space, old tensions: history, identity and violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar


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New political space, old tensions: history, identity and violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar
By  Adam Burke —  Adam Burke, PhD (SOAS, University of London) is an independent consultant and researcher working on conflict and related concerns in Myanmar and across Southeast Asia. 

Violence in Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2012 and 2013 caused up to 1,000 deaths and forced the long-term displacement of entire communities. Using evidence from interviews, media coverage and secondary literature, this article explores recent events and considers contextual factors behind the unrest. The conflict is a symptom of long-term historical tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, and contemporary political changes that reinvigorated anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar. Rigid ethnic classifications that are enshrined in Myanmar’s laws and political system have encouraged territorial attitudes and furthered discrimination against Muslims and others perceived as migrants. This environment generates incentives for local politicians to strengthen group identity and present themselves as the guardians of their electorate. Raised tensions and a background of violence made it easier for Rakhine politicians to promote identity-based voting and to ensure that most Muslim voters in Rakhine State were disenfranchised, paving the way for some local success in the national elections of November 2015. Following the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government indicated that past policies would continue, rapidly disappointing those hoping for rapid change and demonstrating the entrenched nature of Rakhine State’s problems.

 Repeated violent attacks and arson campaigns perpetrated by organized gangs targeted Muslim communities in Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2012 and 2013. The attacks came after decades of tension between the Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority. Many Muslims —mainly those often known as Rohingya— in Rakhine State are effectively stateless, having failed to attain any form of citizenship.1

Campaigns against Muslims in Rakhine State, who make up around one third of the State’s overall population of about 3.2 million,2 have been described by Human Rights Watch as “ethnic cleansing”.3 In 2012, groups of local Rakhine activists razed communities to the ground in central districts of the State as part of a concerted effort to change the area’s ethnic composition. Further violent clashes have been attributed to perpetrators from both the minority and majority communities, but reputable sources agree that the main aggressors were affiliated with Rakhine Buddhist networks.4 Casualty figures are unreliable, but up to 1,000 people, the majority of them Muslim, are thought to have died in inter-communal violence during 2012. In two waves of attacks, most of the Muslims living in central parts of Rakhine State were displaced from their communities into relocated to isolated camps. Their freedom of movement remained restricted after the violence subsided.5

In most instances, a similar pattern of violence evolved. A specific and emotive flashpoint, such as allegations of offences committed by Muslim men against Rakhine women, was seized as a rallying call for a violent response by groups of mostly young Rakhine men. Tensions remained high and in 2015 most of the 140,000 Muslims who had fled from their homes were still confined to camps.6

Individuals associated with the 2012 violence appear to have close ties to ethnic Rakhine politicians such as Kyaw Zaw Oo, a political activist who published an outspoken revisionist tract alleging that Muslims in Rakhine State were aliens. Despite having been arrested for his role in the communal violence of 2012, he stood successfully for a parliamentary seat in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in the November 2015 general elections.7

This article explores the reasons behind the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State in 2012. It considers patterns identified in comparative analyses of communal and ethnic violence, and identifies the main factors that affect this specific case. The research approach uses primary data, consisting mainly of interviews by the author with key informants in Rakhine State and Yangon during several periods in 2013 and 2014. Secondary sources were also consulted, including media coverage, official government statements, reports from humanitarian agencies, online blogs and published academic work.8 Taken together, these sources cover the circumstances and the wider context of the violence in Rakhine State at that time. The findings also take account of the outcome of the elections of 8 November 2015, an important landmark for politicians in Rakhine State and for all of Myanmar.

In addressing the reasons behind ethnic conflicts, researchers have considered specific aspects of violence, focusing on identifiable political and social factors that can be observed across recent conflicts. Empirical studies suggest that the risk of violence is greater among populations with high levels of stratification along ethnic lines whereby certain ethnic groups are more privileged than others. Frances Stewart’s work builds on earlier literature addressing multi-ethnic societies and finds that disparities between ethnic groups or “horizontal inequalities” increase the likelihood of conflict.9 Michael Mann states that in areas inhabited by different ethnic groups, a high level of nationalism defined along ethnic lines tends to justify extreme standpoints, enable leaders to create scapegoats out of minorities and reduce the scope to manage inter-group tensions. Relatively recent and rapid transitions from authoritarian to democratic government create space for “ethnic entrepreneurs” to drum up and exploit group animosities.10 Other assessments have considered at length the importance of government responses to local conflicts and the instrumental role of local politicians in provoking violence.11 These sources draw on case studies from India, Indonesia and other multi-ethnic countries of Southeast Asia that share some similarities with Rakhine State.

Rather than isolating a single factor or theory, this article emphasizes the specific context of the case study, encompassing the multiple causes and complex interactions that lead to violent conflict. Any single incident of ethnic violence stems from an interplay of economic, social and political dynamics that lead to immediate actions and define underlying causes.12 The aim is to avoid reducing a complex reality to a narrower set of factors that may further comparative analysis, but then risk obscuring the subtleties and contradictions of real-world situations.

The term “ethnicity” is employed here in the constructivist sense, recognizing that ethnic groups are socially created. Their ascribed properties and the boundaries between them are chiefly the result of human interaction.13 Definitions of, and the boundaries between, ethnic groups are flexible, yet they often endure over many generations. This definition avoids a primordial sense of ethnicity, in which the term takes on a meaning far closer to that of the word “race”, implying permanence grounded in physical difference or immutable cultural properties.14

However, the widespread and persistent —even if inaccurate belief— that ethnic characteristics are somehow indelibly embedded in genes remains a significant factor in many societies. Ethnic identity is typically defined in Myanmar and across most of Southeast Asia in primordial terms, playing up the rights of a defined group of people (or a supposedly pure “race”) to ancestral land.15 State nationalism, and many independence movements, are built on a similar basis.16 The term “race”, or its equivalent in different languages, is still regularly used across Southeast Asia, for example on citizen identity cards.

The following sections explain how the violence in Rakhine State that flared up in 2012 can be linked both to broader trends across Myanmar and to the specific circumstances of the conflict-affected area. Information is presented under several subheadings: the historical roots of ethnic tensions; the minority status of both main groups of antagonists; recent political changes and their impact; local political processes; and international elements.

Historical Precedents, Ethnicity and Religious Nationalism

Recent violence in Myanmar builds on the past, including the legacy of colonialism. British imperial authority was gradually extended eastwards from India during the 19th century. Many Indians —Muslims, Hindus and others— followed in the same direction, moving to towns and cities across Burma. The colonial civil service, the police and the army were largely staffed by Indians.17 Largely as a legacy of this colonial history, contemporary colloquial Burmese ethnic classifications do not distinguish clearly between Hindus or Muslims, or between those Muslims whose families have lived in Myanmar for generations and more recent immigrants.18

Even before independence in 1947, Burmese nationalists looked to assert the dominance of ethnic Burmans.19 In 1930, anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu riots in Burma killed hundreds. Racial categories applied by colonial authorities were adapted to suit the needs and vision of post-independence rulers in a multi-ethnic state; they have been barely altered since. Common sentiments of identity are based on an ethnically defined concept of nationalism: 135 ethnic groups are accorded official status and grouped into eight indigenous “races”. People perceived as descendants of migrants rather than indigenous are not recognized as a category, and mixed heritage is not included in the classifications.20

After the 1962 military takeover led by General Ne Win, around 300,000 Indians and their descendants fled the country.21 A 1982 law formally restricted citizenship to people whose descendants lived in Myanmar before 1823, effectively disenfranchising many Indians who had remained. Muslims in northern Rakhine State were also affected by local and national travel regulations that limited their ability to leave their local township.

Ethnic identity is central to Myanmar’s subnational politics. The country is organized into seven regions, in which ethnic Burmese are the majority, and seven states, each of which is associated with the ethnic group considered to be a majority in that area. Smaller areas where an ethnic group makes up the majority, yet does not have its own state, have been classified as Special Administrative Zones. Minority populations beyond a stated threshold are also entitled to special political representation within state and regional parliaments. Resistance against the government of Myanmar has been waged for over 70 years by armed ethnic groups, most ethnicities being represented by one or more of these groups as well as formal political parties.

This complex system and the long legacy of conflict have enshrined ethnic categories in the political system. As a result, population estimates and concerns over how ethnic groups are classified are highly contentious. With the advent of more open democratic competition, such a system is likely to generate major political tensions. Unsurprisingly, compilers of data for the 2014 national census decided that information on religion and ethnicity was considered too sensitive to release until tensions subsided in Rakhine State and nationally.22

Those people outside the 135 recognized ethnic groups are regarded as immigrants, have achieved only limited political status in Myanmar and commonly attain only partial citizenship status. In particular, many people of South Asian descent, and Muslims from all backgrounds, are widely perceived as a threat to the Myanmar nation, not only by hardliners but also among the general public, Buddhist monks, politicians and social activists. Attacks on local Muslim communities over several decades have often been associated with political leaders appearing to encourage violence.23 Deeply bigoted anti-Muslim sentiment is commonplace. For instance, many people in Myanmar believe that Muslims in all countries have large families, thereby exacerbating their own state of poverty. They fear that this will threaten the status of Buddhists as the majority. In reality, Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Muslims account for only a few per cent of the population.24 What is more, the birth-rate of neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh is similar to that of Myanmar.

Communal violence in Rakhine State is affected by tensions across the rest of the country. In 2001, Muslims were attacked in towns across Myanmar, including Sittwe and Maungdaw in Rakhine State.25 In March 2013, following the unrest in Rakhine State, anti-Muslim riots erupted again across central Myanmar. In repeated cases, government security forces stood by as attacks took place. Further outbreaks continued into 2014, when riots shook central districts of the city of Mandalay.26

Long-held negative stereotypes have been reinvigorated since 2011. Nationalist, identity-based movements led by Buddhist monks including the 969 Movement and the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (or MaBaTha) encouraged boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses and repeatedly depicted Muslims as a dangerous threat. They promoted their cause widely, using mass media and the internet as well as political connections.27

A Minority within a Minority State

Both Muslims and ethnic Rakhines feel that they are persecuted minorities in Myanmar. The Rakhine, like Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities, complain of longstanding discrimination perpetrated primarily by the central state and particularly the military. Leaders express concern over human rights abuses, arbitrary land confiscation, restrictions on language and cultural expression, economic marginalization, and lack of political control. Poverty is widespread in Rakhine communities. According to a widely used estimate from 2011, Rakhine State is among the two poorest states and regions in the country with a poverty rate of 78 per cent, compared to the national average of 38 per cent.28

Ethnic Rakhines were prominent in the fight against colonial authorities. They continued to challenge national leaders after independence and Rakhine ethnic armed groups maintained an insurgency for many decades.29 Over time, this struggle increasingly shifted to focus on the concerns of the Muslim minority. The widespread belief that immigration and higher birth rates are rapidly increasing the Muslim population fed what has been described as a “siege mentality”.30 Many Rakhines fear becoming a minority within their own state, just as political reforms have finally generated opportunities to gain some authority over their own affairs.31

Rakhine activists can point to separatist claims to territory made by Muslims in northern parts of the State, where Muslims comprise a majority of the population. These claims date back to the 1950s, when Rakhine separatists were also seeking territorial control. The government of Myanmar suppressed both groups.32 There is no evidence that any separatist group —or international terror cell— has existed in recent years within Muslim communities in Rakhine State, but the historical memory feeds current Rakhine fears and sustains propaganda.33 Ethnic Rakhines and others across Myanmar also refer to a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Muslims in 1942 following intense ethnic polarization amid anarchic local conditions during the Second World War.34  ##


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