Muslim-Buddhist Conflicts in Myanmar

Injured people are seen at a hospital in Kyuktaw in Myanmar Thursday.

BANGKOK—Myanmar's sectarian conflicts are drawing new international scrutiny to the country's fragile ethnic fault-lines, with government officials saying the death toll from several days of clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists stands at 64 people, revising the figure down from earlier estimates of 112.

The violence, which began in June, has spread in recent days to several townships in Rakhine state, including the commercial hub Kyaukpyu, the starting point of an important oil pipeline leading to China.

The people killed there were from both the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities, said Win Myaing, information officer for Rakhine's state government in western Myanmar. In a telephone interview, he added that security forces are now guarding towns from further attacks.

The continuing clashes "could tarnish the image of the country," President Thein Sein's office warned in a statement published in state-run media Friday. A statement from the office of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the violence as "deeply troubling."

"The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped," the U.N. statement said. "If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening-up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized."

Political analysts say rivalries between Myanmar's myriad ethnicities, many of them brutally suppressed during a half-century of military rule, could present the biggest challenge to its fledgling democracy. They might also threaten some investments as the country's Parliament is fine-tuning legislation designed to draw in foreign companies to revive the long-isolated economy.

Around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar, many of them subsisting in refugee camps, making up just 1.25% of Myanmar's 64 million population. Much larger ethnic groups include Bamar, who comprise 68% of the population; Shan, with 9%; Karen, comprising 7%; and Rakhine, who account for 4% of the total population.

Myanmar's former military regime last year handed power to a quasicivilian government. Since then, a series of reforms have encouraged the U.S. and European Union to drop many of their long-standing economic sanctions against the country, putting Myanmar back on the radar screens of investors eager to tap into rich natural resources and affordable labor.

Earlier this month, the U.S. military—once wary of Myanmar's developing ties with North Korea—also stepped up ties with the Southeast Asian nation's armed forces as officials including Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in the Asia-Pacific, visited the country to discuss the human-rights environment.

But Myanmar's progress could be damaged by its ethnic rivalries, analysts say, especially in resource-rich areas like Kachin state in the north, where insurgents are continuing to oppose the central government in Naypyitaw.

The conflict between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar's majority Buddhists in Rakhine state could prove especially disruptive internationally.

Muslim nations—including regional trade partners such as Indonesia and Malaysia—are growing more concerned about the fate of the Rohingya Muslims after the Myanmar government reacted to protests from Buddhist monks, among others, and blocked plans for the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation to open a liaison office to help channel aid to the Rohingyas. The denial underscored discrimination against the Rohingyas, whom the government doesn't consider to be Myanmar citizens, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, for its part, doesn't allow Rohingyas to seek refuge there from what human-rights groups say is widespread persecution and discrimination in Myanmar. Around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar, many of them subsisting in refugee camps.

"The OIC, and the international community more generally, will now look at Myanmar's government to undertake every measure not only to bring the violence to an end and allow relief measures, but also to deal with the root causes of the conflict; that is, to address the deep-seated hatred between communities and tackle the citizenship issue concerning the Rohingyas," said Jan Zalewski, an analyst with IHS Global Insight in London. "Any perceptions of partiality in the conflict, or deliberate inaction, would likely trigger a very strong response."

So far, Myanmar's government hasn't made any moves to include Rohingyas among the various ethnic groups who do have Myanmar citizenship. With an election approaching in 2015, the opposition, lead by former
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been guarded in its comments on the issue, too.

Analysts say that the comments from Mr. Thein Sein's office and the deployment of more troops to help protect vulnerable townships suggest that Myanmar's government is growing increasingly aware of how the controversy is perceived overseas and how it could damage the country's reputation for tolerance and diversity.

Still, "the extent to which this will be the case will depend on the government's response," Mr. Zalewski said, noting that Myanmar's relations with OIC members nations were now looking strained.
Many ethnic Rohingya Muslims have been killed or forced to flee homes due to attacks by Buddhists over the year [AFP]