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Myanmar: Ethno-Religious Conflict Threatens Transition

Published 14 Jul 2015
James Davies
 Mathias Eich/EU,ECHO(2013)

Mathias Eich/EU,ECHO(2013)

Despite the praise that Myanmar’s ‘democratic’ transition continues to receive from Western governments, there is growing evidence that the pace of reform is slowing. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has argued that the country’s political reforms have stalled, and are not leading to democracy. She accused foreign governments of incorrectly calling Myanmar a democratic success story. Perhaps the most disruptive and immediate challenge to the transition process, however, is the deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

In a continuation of the unrest that started in Rakhine State in June 2012, the violence has spread across the country, affecting both Buddhist and Muslim communities. In July last year, days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay left two people dead and almost 20 injured. Approximately 60 people were arrested for their role in the riots. Recently in Rakhine State, Rohingya Muslims had their voting rights revoked following pressure from nationalist Buddhist organisations. These groups have been increasingly vocal in response to Myanmar’s expected November 2015 elections, prompting concerns that raised tensions could provoke more violence.

The threat that ethno-religious violence can pose to a political transition has been recognised. Studies have linked the process of political transition to an increased incidence of ethno-religious conflict. As is commonly noted, “introducing democracy means, more often than not, ethnic trouble”. Although this is certainly not the rule, there is a correlation between the two. In times of transition, individuals use their newfound freedoms to express grievances. Without the institutional capacity to manage these grievances, conflict spills onto the streets, threatening the establishment of any new political order. Particularly in pluralistic societies, groups mobilise along ethnic and religious lines as they compete to secure influence and power in a new system. During this process, tensions may be heightened, leading to violence and potentially an “abortion of the democratic process itself”. It is often the case that during a transition there is a deficit of credible guarantees to protect minority rights.

Buddhist-Muslim relations in Myanmar

It is estimated that 80 per cent of the total population of Myanmar is Buddhist, while Islam makes up four per cent. Islam came to Burma peacefully, as early as the ninth century with Arab, Persian and Indian traders. There are several Muslim communities in Myanmar, each with their own histories and traditions. The descendants of early traders are commonly called Burmese Muslims, the oldest group of Muslims living in Myanmar . A significant number of South Asian Muslims migrated to Burma during the colonial period. Another group, the Kaman Muslims, live in Rakhine State. They are the descendants of the Muslim soldiers who came to Arakan with an exiled Mughal Prince in the 17th century. The community of Panthay Muslims of northern Myanmar was formed following the Qing dynasty’s massacre and annihilation of a Sultanate in China’s Yunnan province in 1873. Many settled around the northeastern town of Lashio. Another group, the Rohingya Muslims, live mostly in northern Rakhine State. Many in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though there is no doubt that there have been Muslim inhabitants in this area for some time. However, it is also clear that many South Asians migrated into the area during and after the colonial period. There are few accounts of conflict between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims before British colonisation, but accounts become more numerous after.

Of the most recent instances, the first deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists began in Rakhine State on 8 June 2012, and concerned mostly Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, although Kaman Muslims were also affected. After only four days, the violence had resulted in the destruction of 1,662 homes. The government claimed that 78 people were killed, although Human Rights Watch asserts that this is a conservative estimate. In October 2012 there was a resurgence of violence. While earlier violence had been spontaneous, this time it was organised and planned by Buddhists. There were reports in both conflicts that authorities were complicit in the violence against Rohingya people.

The Rohingya village of Du Chee Yar Tan suffered arson attacks in a serious January 2014 incident. The UN, Rohingya activists and NGOs have claimed that a massacre took place, and that Rakhine mobs and police killed at least 40 people. Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of parliament with the ruling party, has accused police of complicity. The Myanmar government has claimed that Rohingya Muslims burnt down their own homes, and that police entered the village only to find information about a missing Rakhine police officer. A UN report has been released to the Myanmar government, but not made public, regarding the events. It is believed that the report details the crimes, and how authorities allowed Buddhist mobs to commit the massacre. The then UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tomas Quintana expressed his deep concern regarding:

“the failure of the government to conduct a credible and independent investigation into the allegations of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Rakhine [Arakan] State which may constitute crimes against humanity.

Quintana has also noted that “tackling the situation in Rakhine State represents a particular challenge which, if left unaddressed, could jeopardize the entire reform process”.

The violence has also spread beyond Rakhine State. The central town of Meiktila experienced some of the worst violence in April 2013. Over 100 people were killed and numerous mosques and madrasahs were destroyed. Violence has occurred throughout the country: in Okkan, a town north of Yangon; in Hpakant, a jade-mining town in majority-Christian Kachin State; in Lashio; and in Kanbalu township in Sagaing division. What these events typically have in common is their immediate cause. Typically, an alleged crime or dispute between two individuals escalates into widespread destruction of lives, homes and property. Both communities have been involved in attacks on the other, including on innocent civilians, yet the Muslim victims have significantly outnumbered the Buddhist victims.  It is important also to note that the targets of the violence have been from a range of Myanmar’s Muslim communities.

Ethno-religious violence and the threat to transition

Since the military coup of 1962, the Myanmar military government has had a well-documented policy of persecuting the Rohingya community. As well as being denied citizenship, they have faced restrictions on education, religious worship and travel. Almost as an illustration of the government’s position was President Thein Sein’s comments after Quintana visited Myanmar in February 2013. Quintana recognised the 1982 citizenship law as a major obstacle and encouraged the government to reform it. Instead, the President proposed that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) settle the Rohingyas in a third country. The UNHCR rejected this proposal, retorting, “as a refugee agency, we do not usually participate in creating refugees”.

The role of Buddhist monks, an influential segment of Burmese society, has also been significant. The nationalist 969 Movement, and the Organisation for Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha), both led by influential Buddhist monks, has encouraged followers to separate and exclude Muslims.The serious and ongoing nature of violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities poses a real threat to the transition underway in Myanmar.

Studies have linked the process of political liberalisation or democratic transition to increased incidence of ethno-religious conflict.  In their qualitative studies of ethno-religious conflict in transitional Iraq and Nigeria respectively, both Wimmer and Ukiwo conclude that it is actually a deficit of democracy that encourages conflict. Liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes both exhibit low levels of conflict; while in semi-democracies political violence and conflict are very common.  This may be because semi-democracies permit the freedom to express dissatisfaction, but lack a developed democratic culture and procedure to accommodate them. In contrast, liberal democratic systems develop a culture that emphasises negotiation, compromise and conciliation. Societies in transition exhibit similar tendencies as semi-democracies, hence the evidence linking transitions and conflict. The tragic paradox is that conflict threatens to derail the transition process before the new system develops the mechanisms and political culture to deal peacefully with conflict.

Stavenhagen argues that ethnic conflicts arise from “specific historical circumstances” and are moulded by particular circumstances, often to serve the interests of groups – from political or ethnic leaders to idealists and opportunists. Additionally, in states emerging from authoritarian rule, the absence of a strong network of civil society can be detrimental. Another crucial aspect concerns weak states failing to ensure equality before the law.  When the rule of law is weak, patron-client relationships emerge.

After 50 years of military rule and civil war, the state does not have effective institutional mechanisms for dealing with grievances. Without effective access to political representation and procedures for the management of disputes, communities may find that the only way to resolve disputes is through violence.

Myanmar’s undemocratic 2008 Constitution poses a threat to political transition, particularly in the context of ethno-religious conflict. As Larry Diamond has noted, the Constitution attempts to institutionalise a “competitive authoritarian regime in which the military will remain a dominant veto player”. The Constitution contains several provisions that are inconsistent with democratic rule. To take perhaps the most obvious instance, changes to the Constitution require 75 per cent support in the parliament. However, as the Constitution guarantees the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) 25 per cent of seats, unwanted change can easily be blocked.

Article 201 also guarantees the Tatmadaw several seats on the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). The NDSC’s role is a powerful one. The President must work in co-ordination with the Council in many instances, including declaring a state of emergency and granting amnesties. Article 40(c) gives the NDSC “the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power” in the case of a vaguely outlined “state of emergency”. The Tatmadaw could use its influence in the powerful NDSC to return to military rule, if they perceive that this is the only way to manage conflict. Continuing conflict may lead the hardline elements within government to abort the transition process, convinced that only the clenched fist of authoritarian rule can manage ethnic conflict.  Here we may draw a lesson from history, as an important factor behind the decisive military coup of 1962 was the democratic government’s failure to control ethnic and political insurgency. To take another perspective, Tatmadaw hardliners who are concerned that democratic reform has gone too far may use ethno-religious conflict as an excuse to revert to military rule.

James T Davies is a PhD student at UNSW Canberra, and wrote this article while undertaking research at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia.

[see downloadable PDF for references]