Myanmar Conflict: An Apathetic Government Gives Little Hope to Threatened Muslims

A fresh outbreak of violence in the troubled Rakhine state of Myanmar claimed the lives of five Muslims in the town of Thandwe earlier this month. In addition to that, nearly a thousand Buddhist protestors torched nearly 50 homes of belonging to Muslim residents including a neighbourhood mosque.

A general anti-Muslim sentiment has proliferated in post-military Burma. The Rohingya Muslim sect in particular has been at end of extreme violence from the majority Buddhist population of Rakhine. Coupled with the institutionalized discrimination faced by the Rohingya on a daily basis, their place in Burmese society remains precarious at best. Condemnation from around the world has been profound, where even the highest Buddhist authority, the Dalai Lama, has called for an immediate end to Muslim bloodshed.

On a more worrisome note, ever since the conflict took precedence on the international stage, the ruling government has espoused a relative silence over the issue, failing to improve the lives of their native Muslim populace. This deliberate aloofness of the Burmese ruling elite is complex. However, with the recent transition to democracy after decades of military rule, the government’s apathy seems to stem from unwillingness to lose growing support amongst the Buddhist majority.

The present conflict between Buddhists and Muslims was started in mid-2012, when over a 100 people were killed in the western state of Rakhine. As a result, thousands were made to flee from their homes, seeking refuge under the auspices of IDP camps.

Since then, numerous episodes of sporadic violence have taken place with casualties almost exclusively on the Muslim side. Human rights organizations continue to criticize the government for their meek response, both politically and physically.

A comprehensive report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) published last week presents a grim picture of the security apparatus in Rakhine. The majority of the police force is comprised of mainly Buddhists, who the ICG states to be “at best unsympathetic to Muslim victims” and “complicit in the violence against them” at worst. Furthermore, the ICG research reveals a lack of police resources in the failure to handle the brewing violence: limited equipment, vehicles and a general incompetence related to “anti-riot techniques” were cited for the poor security arrangement. 

National hero and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s sheepish reaction to the persecution of Muslims has caught most people by surprise. Commentators and analysts alike have accused her for betraying her principled stances in the past, decrying her silence and opting for political opportunism.

The government’s apathy in the whole crisis seems to arise from being unwilling to compromise its support amongst the overwhelming Buddhist majority. As anti-Muslim sentiment rises in the country, any strict measures taken to control the violence may result in a backlash. This may, though not imminently, lead to some form of interference from the disgruntled military junta.

As elections are not set to take place in 2015, the opposition party nor the ruling establishment are likely to further the cause of Muslims, knowing the backlash they would face from a sizable constituency.

Further complications arise due to the systematic discrimination faced by Muslims.  The Rohingya have denied citizenship in the country and are often referred to as “Bengali immigrants”. Today they face a two child policy, a move first enacted during previous military rule, which severely diminishes their reproductive rights, as many analysts has rightly argued. Suu Kyi has lamented the policy yet many in her movement have shown support for the controversial law. 

In the face of international pressure, the Burmese government now fears a growing isolation in the world community. In addition, denunciation from Buddhism’s highest authority has been a welcome development as well. Nevertheless, unless the establishment is willing to let go of crony politics, and address the deeper rooted issues of discrimination, the Muslims of Myanmar can hope for little.