Why the Rakhine marches against the Rohingya, and who really benefits from it

Last weekend, Akyab (Sittwe), the state capital of Arakan was once again flooded with angry Rakhines protesting against the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims from Bangladesh. According to a deal signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the repatriation process is supposedly to start from mid November. This demonstration of populist anti Muslim sentiment is noteworthy for two reasons.
First, it demonstrates once again the extent to which the Burmese regime has managed to divide and conquer the Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim. Akyab is not only a historic symbol of Muslim civilization in Arakan, but a relic of religious harmony between Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim ancestors of present day Rohingyas. Kingdoms changed rulers, but the harmony between the Muslims and Buddhists in Akyab and the rest of Arakan did not. It was citing this religious harmony between the two religions, that the Konbaung dynasty of Burma mobilised populist Buddhist sentiments with the allegation that Arakan would act as the bulwark of a future Muslim conquest of Myanmar. The invasion by the Konbaung army in 1784 backed by popular Burmese Buddhist support effectively ended the independence of Arakan forever. Burma (now Myanmar) gained independence in 1948, but Arakan remains under the descendants of the Burmese conquerors. Even more importantly, while a notable section of the Rakhine populace still dream of an independent homeland, the ideology of the invading Burmese i.e. Buddhist nationalism backed by the state machinery has found a more receptive audience among this community. The Rakhines prefer collaboration with their conquerors rather than with the community with whose backing they had historically ruled an independent Arakan.
Even though till 2012, the state capital had remained a mixed city where Rakhine Buddhists held a slim majority over the Muslim Rohingyas, the religious harmony that had once characterised Arakan had long gone. The 2012 riots cemented Buddhist nationalism and drove out Rohingya Muslims from Akyab town (among other places), with the survivors herded into the ghetto of Aung Minglar.
The forces of Buddhist nationalism that accompanied the Burmese conquest of 1784, has won an incredible audience among the Rakhine people. It is one of the greatest successes in the history of a conquering force that they have managed to embed the seeds of their poisonous ideology among the descendants of the people they had massacred by the hundreds of thousands, not even sparing women and children. Last Sunday’s demonstration is just another demonstration of Buddhist nationalism support among the Rakhine population. Ironically it is this ideology that led to the greatest genocide in the history of the Rakhine people.
Secondly, while there is no denying that the overwhelming majority of the Rakhines want the Rohingyas out of Arakan, there is also no denying that Sunday’s demonstration was orchestrated by Naypyidaw, as was the case of all anti Rohingya demonstrations in the past. The demonstration is only just one tactic used by the Myanmar government in preventing any forms of Muslim existence in Arakan.
In the past, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi had repeatedly pointed the finger of blame at Bangladesh for delaying the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Of course the truth is that as long as the security forces that committed the ethnic cleansing of 2017, and many other bouts before that remain in place, there is no safety for the Rohingyas in their ancient homeland. This has led for calls of demilitarisation, not only from international human rights organisations, but even from the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina.
It has become imperative for the regime to prove that the state forces are not the main obstacle to the presence of the Rohingyas in the Arakan. They need to prove that the Rakhine people are also tooth and nail against the presence of a Muslim population in Arakan. The strategy of mobilising and demonstrating popular Rakhine support is crucial to the cornerstone of the regime’s ultimate aim — to end Muslim existence in Arakan, once and for all.