Beset by communal violence and frequently denied their human rights, life for many in Myanmar’s Rakhine State is desperately grim. But our fieldwork suggests there is a path towards peace.
Rakhine State was virtually unknown in the West until torn asunder by communal strife in 2012. It borders Bangladesh and is frequently the point of departure for tens of thousands of Muslim refugees who traverse the Bay of Bengal in rickety boats, hoping to seek asylum in Thailand, Malaysia or even Australia. It is Myanmar’s second-poorest state, with a poverty rate close to twice the national average.
These Muslims, who call themselves “Rohingya”, bore the worst of the 2012 conflict with the local majority Buddhist “Rakhine”. Three years later, more than 140,000 Muslims still live in internal displacement camps. Others have been restricted to an urban ghetto with limited medical care, services or income opportunities.
Myanmar’s government denies the Rohingya citizenship. Even those who previously held citizenship papers have had them removed. This has rendered them stateless, marginalised and vulnerable to human rights abuses. A damning recent report concluded that there is:
… a serious and present danger of the annihilation of the country’s Rohingya population.
What we found
Rakhine State’s communal tensions have a long and complex history. Authorities often use them as a pretext for repressive security measures harming both Buddhists and Muslims, but disproportionately limiting Muslims’ rights. Reducing these tensions and preventing communal conflict is crucial to ensuring a better future for all Rakhine State residents.
We recently undertook extensive fieldwork in Rakhine State to understand the perspectives of leaders and ordinary members of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya communities. We hoped to find out what could help resolve the underlying issues that drive this conflict, particularly after Myanmar’s recent election. The results were not at all what we expected.
Based on most reports and our previous visits, we anticipated finding two distinct and quite separate communities who wanted little or nothing to do with one another, and who had little or no respect for one another. But what we found, by and large, was exactly the opposite. People are ready to consider putting aside their prejudices and fears to get along with one another and live in peace.
In the days following Myanmar’s historic election we travelled through five townships in Rakhine State. We made detailed observations, held open community meetings with around 600 participants and had discussions with key leaders.
Both rural and urban Rakhine communities expressed clear suspicion and fear of the Rohingya, based on rumours of crime, personal safety and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Landless Rakhine explained how they compete with Rohingya for day labour and other resources, and fear the impact of a growing Muslim population on their survival. Rural Rakhine farmers are intensely poor.
The Rakhine also expressed an intense dislike of the name “Rohingya”, which they believe belongs only to illegal post-second world war migrants as opposed to long-term Muslim residents.
These fears aside, we found that the overwhelming majority of both urban and rural Rakhine want to live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours. They are keen to see them granted human rights and measures to facilitate greater integration. They are even willing to allow a majority of Muslims to be granted citizenship if the new government openly and transparently applies citizenship laws without corruption, and if the Muslim community demonstrates commitment to the responsibilities of citizenship.
These Rakhine overwhelmingly believe the government and military are more responsible for the conflict, having permitted – if not instigated – extreme nationalism to distract attention from the appropriation of gas and other resource revenues. They therefore believe the state has the power to fix the issue whenever it is willing. On this point, the Muslim community agrees wholeheartedly.
The Rohingya we visited were equally poor as the rural Rakhine, but are also denied their citizenship and associated rights. This makes their situation substantially more marginal and materially vulnerable. Muslims confined to the urban ghetto of Aung Mingular live with the very real fear that their supply lines could be cut at any time. This would leave them isolated and without food.
Despite this, we were surprised by the Rohingya’s goodwill towards the Rakhine people. Almost all Rohingya we spoke with, including in the internal displacement camps, said they had ethnic Rakhine friends and valued being part of Myanmar and Rakhine State. They want to return to their lives in the community, with peaceful relations with their neighbours, and to have their rights respected.
The Rohingya we spoke with believe the government could relatively easily resolve their horrific situation – with good leadership, communication and commitment to the rule of law.
Similarly, the Rakhine’s substantive goodwill towards the Muslims surprised us. While it contained elements of naivety about the Muslims’ plight and perhaps a wilful blindness to the systemic marginalisation and denial of human rights, it also strongly suggests that if Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government shows political leadership and acts in an impartial and law-based manner, most Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims could be brought down a path of reconciliation and mutual understanding.
The government committing to equitable development in the state, and giving the state a share in the vast gas revenue being taken out of the region, would go a long way too.
Both sides want peace. They broadly agree that peace can be achieved in Rakhine State if there is adequate political leadership, a commitment to the rule of law that guarantees peoples’ human rights, a citizenship process that is transparent, and a commitment to development and revenue sharing.
The challenge will be to overcome the nationalistic voices of powerful people with vested interests. We believe the engagement of civil society and faith organisations will be crucial to foster co-operation and a renegotiation of identities and perceptions, particularly in relation to identity labels.
If this can be the case, our research strongly suggests a positive and peaceful future is possible for all residents of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.