Sunday June 17, 2012
When reform falls short
Behind The Headlines
By BUNN NAGARA
Myanmar’s fortunes have taken a nosedive following inter-ethnic violence in Rakhine state.
THE rapid but rocky road to Myanmar’s reform seemed to see only progress, with hopes of more to come. Even the potholes and rough patches were being filled and smoothed over.
Now that is coming unstuck, with progress slowing or shifting into reverse. Deadly violence began 10 days ago between Rakhine state’s two largest groups, Buddhists and Muslims, who between sporadic shootings raze each other’s homes in villages and towns.
More than 500 homes were destroyed and seven people killed in the first five days, then the casualties tripled just one day later. Imposing order from above may stem the spiral of violence for now, but that is still a firefighting exercise unlike long-term measures for national integration.
The current violence has also come at the worst possible time. There is no “good” time for tragedies, but this one is threatening national unity and international confidence in the government just as the country is undertaking a delicate transition.
President Thein Sein has steadily introduced reforms with more liberal laws, greater press freedom, release of hundreds of political prisoners, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to politics and peace talks with rebel groups.
A new civilian government had come to succeed hardline generals. Speculation grew about whether a national crisis would trigger a military clampdown.
But the reforms proceeded, broadening and deepening as the country’s international contacts opened up. Nothing seemed to obstruct Myanmar’s return to civility, development and international acceptance.
Then early this month a Rakhine Buddhist woman was allegedly raped and killed by three Muslim men. In turn, a Buddhist mob attacked and killed 10 Muslims.
Tension soared and tit-for-tat violence escalated. Rakhine, Myanmar’s westernmost territory, has long been prone to such a crisis as ingrained mutual prejudices overflowed.
The Buddhist majority are proud of their heritage, while the Muslim minority remained marginalised. A Yangon-based national government had long focused on big-picture priorities to the neglect of minorities like the Rohingyas, seen as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denied citizenship.
But when Rohingyas move to Muslim Bangladesh next door, they are regarded as illegal immigrants from Myanmar. Squeezed by both countries and accepted by none, they remain stateless.
Despite Thein Sein’s government striving for goodwill abroad and with ethnic rebels at home, it neglected a crucial area: relations between the different communities.
As bitterness festered, all it took for the newfound optimism to unravel was a spark in the awaiting powder keg. That spark came soon enough.
In response, the government last Sunday declared a state of emergency in Rakhine. But sitting on the lid of the problem is very different from effective policy remedies that avoid further conflicts.
By Monday the UN completed “voluntarily” relocating staff from Maungdaw in Rakhine. The refugees had far fewer options.
In the 1991 crisis, a quarter of a million Rohingyas arrived in Bangladesh. Most of them later returned to Myanmar, but more also trickled in.
Currently, Bangladesh is sheltering 30,000 legal Rohingyas and another 200,000 illegal (unregistered) ones. Dhaka says it cannot take more.
But inhospitable neighbours are not the refugees’ biggest problems. They face other grave risks such as pirate attacks.
Boatloads of refugees heading for Bangladesh have been robbed and slain by marauding gangs. Recently one such boat was found drifting empty except for a newborn infant too hungry to cry.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights NGOs are appealing to Bangladesh to receive the refugees, at least temporarily before long-term accommodation can be arranged. But Dhaka cannot broadcast any welcome to avoid attracting more refugees.
There is disagreement even over official statements made. Days after a UN official said discussions had been held with Bangladesh on the refugees, the Foreign Ministry denied the UN had requested anything on their behalf.
Bangladesh says refugees place enormous social and environmental strains on already stretched resources. A 2009 police probe also revealed that some refugees had links to militant groups.
Far from welcoming new refugees, Bangladesh said it was about to repatriate those already there. But humanitarian groups have reminded Dhaka of the international obligation to house refugees fleeing persecution.
Prime responsibility lies with Myanmar’s government. It cannot depend indefinitely on limited foreign goodwill.
Previously, Myanmar’s military rule might have immediately snuffed out any prospect of spreading ethnic violence. Such was the fear of government retribution that no spark might ever have occurred.
But Myanmar has since come under new management, which is seen as more liberal and forgiving. This latest violence is also the most serious test of the state and its reform agenda.
On the third day of violence, Thein Sein addressed the nation on the issues at stake. He also sent troops to protect volatile neighbourhoods, which suppressed further attacks without completely restoring confidence, much less erasing underlying inter-ethnic fissures.
The situation demands swift and firm action by the government, but at no time does it warrant a return to authoritarian military rule. Although some worry this crisis may tempt hardline generals to return, that is less likely than ethnic strife spreading around the country.
Confidence of the generals, the people and the international community in Thein Sein’s government needs to be maintained. That will be rendered impossible if the government is seen as unresponsive or overreacting to the violence.
The “Arab spring” originated in a local, seemingly isolated event like official action against a street vendor in Tunisia. An equivalent incident in Myanmar today could upend the reform process.
The country’s unity and long-term future are at stake. Yet Myanmar needs more unity now to forge an effective front against the disunity in Rakhine.
Cynics holding their breath until Myanmar’s reform process hit a bump in the road may want to breathe again, now that a boulder has appeared. And there is a ditch or two after the boulder.
But the 60 million-plus people from Myanmar’s 135 officially acknowledged ethnic groups now have fewer reasons to breathe so easily.