Takebi (Myanmar): This village in northwest Myanmar has the besieged air of a
refugee camp. It is clogged with people living in wooden shacks
laid out on a grid of trash-strewn lanes. Its children are
pot-bellied with malnutrition. But Takebi’s residents are not
refugees. They are Rohingya, a stateless Muslim people of South
Asian descent now at the heart of Myanmar’s worst sectarian
violence in years. The United Nations has called them “virtually
friendless” in Myanmar, the majority-Buddhist country that most Rohingya call home. Today, as Myanmar opens up, they appear to have
more enemies than ever.
Armed with machetes and bamboo spears, rival mobs of Rohingya
Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists this month torched one
another’s houses and transformed nearby Sittwe, the capital of the
western state of Rakhine, into a smoke-filled battleground. A
torrent of Rohingyas has tried to flee Rakhine into
impoverished Bangladesh, but most are being pushed back, said a
Bangladeshi Border Guard commander.
The fighting threatens to derail the democratic transition
in Myanmar, a resource-rich nation of 60 million strategically
positioned at Asia’s crossroads
between India and China, Bangladesh and Thailand. With scores feared
dead, President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency on June
10 to prevent “vengeance and anarchy” spreading beyond Rakhine and
jeopardizing his ambitious reform agenda.
Reuters visited the area just before the unrest broke out. The
northern area of Rakhine state is off-limits to foreign reporters.
Until this month, Myanmar’s transformation from global pariah to
democratic start-up had seemed remarkably rapid and peaceful.
Thein Sein released political prisoners, relaxed media controls,
and forged peace with ethnic rebel groups along the country’s
war-torn borders. A new air of hope and bustle in Myanmar’s towns
and cities is palpable.
But not in Rakhine, also known as Arakan. It is home to about
800,000 mostly stateless Rohingya, who according to the United
Nations are subject to many forms of “persecution, discrimination
and exploitation.” These include forced labor, land confiscations,
restrictions on travel and limited access to jobs, education and
Now, even as the state eases repression of the general populace
and other minorities, long-simmering ethnic tensions here are on
the boil – a dynamic that resembles what happened when
multi-ethnic Yugoslavia fractured a generation ago after communism
Even the democracy movement in Myanmar is doing little to help the
Muslim minority, Rohingya politicians say. Democracy icon Aung San
Suu Kyi last week urged “all people in Burma to get along with each
other regardless of their religion and authenticity.” But she has
remained “tight-lipped” about the Rohingya, said Kyaw Min, a
Rohingya leader and one-time Suu Kyi ally who spent more than
seven years as a political prisoner. “It is politically risky for
her,” he said.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win wouldn’t comment on Suu Kyi’s position, but
said: “The Rohingya are not our citizens.” Suu Kyi is now on a
European tour that will take her to Oslo, Norway, to accept the
Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. The violence could
disrupt Myanmar’s detente with the West, however. U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton on June 11 called for “Muslims, Buddhists,
and ethnic representatives, including Rohingya . . . to begin a
dialogue toward a peaceful resolution.”
The United States suspended some sanctions on Myanmar, including
those banning investment, in May as a reward for its democratic
reforms. But the White House kept the framework of hard-hitting
sanctions in place, with President Barack Obama expressing at the
time concern about Myanmar’s “treatment of minorities and
detention of political prisoners.” The European Union, which also
suspended its sanctions, said on Monday it was satisfied with
Thein Sein’s “measured” handling of the violence, which the
president has said could threaten the transition to democracy if
allowed to spiral out of control.
Rohingya activists claim a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine, which
like the rest of Burma is predominantly Buddhist. The government
regards them as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh and
denies them citizenship. “There is no ethnic group named Rohingya
in our country,” immigration minister Khin Yi said in May.
Communal tensions had been rising in Myanmar since the gang rape
and murder of a Buddhist woman last month that was blamed on
Muslims. Six days later, apparently in retribution, a Buddhist mob
dragged 10 Muslims from a bus and beat them to death.
Violence then erupted on June 9 in Maungdaw, one of the three
Rohingya-majority districts bordering Bangladesh, before spreading
to Sittwe, the biggest town in Rakhine. Scores are feared dead,
and 1,600 houses burnt down. One measure of the pressure the
Rohingya are under is the growing number of boat people. During
the so-called “sailing season” between monsoons, thousands of
Rohingya attempt to cross the Bay of Bengal in small, ramshackle
fishing boats. Their destination: Muslim-majority Malaysia, where
thousands of Rohingya work, mostly illegally.