Testing time

Riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has left 20 people dead and set off a fresh exodus of the Muslims into neighbouring Bangladesh. The rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman and the arrest of three Rohingyas, as Muslim Rakhine are called, provided the spark to simmering tensions between the two communities. Before long, it erupted in all-out violence with both sides burning down villages and engaging in killing and looting. The government has declared emergency and sent the army to quell the violence as well as administer the state. In previous episodes of violence between Rakhine’s Buddhists and Muslims, the army tended to side with the Buddhists. The Rohingyas are among the most discriminated of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Lakhs have been denied citizenship. They have been the greatest victims of the ‘Buddhistisation’ of Myanmar, an agenda pursued by all of its governments, military or democratic. 

As the tension escalates, will hardliners in Thein Sein’s reformist government use the unrest in Rakhine to justify return to military rule? What is the position of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy on the matter? In the past leaders of the NLD have maintained a silence during anti-Muslim riots to avoid upsetting the Buddhist majority. But as the party that is driving Myanmar’s democratisation, it cannot remain silent on this issue any longer. After all, a democracy that excludes any community is a hollow democracy.

The anti-Muslim violence should serve as a reminder to Thein Sein, the NLD and others that as important as democratic reform is the crafting of an inclusive Myanmar. The government has initiated some development in the ethnic minority regions. But reconciliation will need more than development packages. The minorities need to feel secure and this will require response to their political demands. Undoubtedly, Thein Sein faces a daunting task. He needs to restore calm in Rakhine immediately. He has turned to the military to help out but excessive dependence could encourage them to stay on.  The crisis in Rakhine will test his commitment to democracy. If not handled well, it could generate unrest in the other ethnic states.

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