Myanmar facing unfolding crisis
November 17th, 2012
06:42 PM ET

Myanmar facing unfolding crisis

By Louise Arbour, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Louise Arbour is President of the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are her own.

When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Myanmar in the next few days, he will encounter a country undergoing one of the most dramatic – and positive – transitions in recent memory, but one which also now faces an unfolding crisis of deeply disturbing proportions. The flare-up of mass violence in the western region of Rakhine State, in part a by-product of the country’s ongoing transformation, represents a backward step that hands the Southeast Asian nation’s government and its opposition leaders their toughest challenge yet.

Since March 2011, Myanmar has been enjoying a remarkable political transition. The country’s leaders have demonstrated the political will and the vision to move the country decisively away from the past.

President Thein Sein has declared the changes irreversible and worked to build a durable partnership with the opposition, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. While the process remains incomplete, much has been achieved: many political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished, not to mention last year’s by-elections, which saw Suu Kyi and her party enter parliament.

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Even the country’s multiple internal ethnic conflicts seemed to be on a generally positive path. With ten major ceasefires signed, only a deal with the Kachin armed group remains elusive. While addressing the grievances underpinning these conflicts on the periphery remains the core goal, clearly securing ceasefires is a vital first step.

Then, in June, ethnic violence in Rakhine State disrupted this encouraging narrative. The alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men was the trigger that led long simmering tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya to explode. Dozens were killed, hundreds of houses were burned, and 75,000 mostly Rohingya were displaced by subsequent intercommunal violence in northern Rakhine State.

Widespread violence erupted again on October 21 in new areas of Rakhine State, bringing the number killed to about 140 and the total displaced to some 110,000. This latest round of violence consisted of attacks against not just Rohingya but also non-Rohingya Muslim communities, with indications that they were organized in advance by extremist elements.

Thus far, the government has been unable to fully contain the situation. Local authorities and security forces have in some cases acted in a partisan manner. Neither the authorities nor the national opposition have adequately challenged the extremist rhetoric fuelling the ethnic violence. It should be noted that the Rohingya for too long have been the pariah people of the region, enduring fierce discrimination in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, and scant support elsewhere, though the recent violence has triggered soundings of displeasure from a number of Asia’s Muslim-majority countries.

In part, tensions such as these are to be expected in a country emerging from authoritarian rule. Social friction can increase as more freedom allows long unaddressed issues to resurface. In Myanmar one can also see grassroots protests over land grabs and abuses by local authorities, as well as environmental and social concerns over foreign-backed infrastructure and mining projects.

Still, the mounting problem in Rakhine State is the primary concern. It is an extremely dangerous situation for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Myanmar. Indeed, any further rupturing of intercommunal relations could threaten national stability.

Experience shows communal tensions can be exploited and inflamed for political gain. In particular, there is a real risk that the violence in Rakhine State will take on a more explicitly Buddhist-Muslim character, with the possibility of clashes spreading to the many other areas where there are minority Muslim populations.

The emergence of a “Buddhist solidarity” lobby around the Rakhine issue – with Buddhist monks and a segment of the Burman elite demonstrating in support of Rakhine Buddhists – does not augur well.

President Thein Sein has established an investigation commission with a broad mandate to examine the causes of the violence and the official response, and provide suggestions on how to resolve the situation and for reconciliation and the socioeconomic development of the area. Its work could be very important to define a way forward for Rakhine State and catalyze national reflection on the issue of identity and diversity in this multi-religious country.

If, however, the commission’s final report, expected in the coming months, is a diluted text that avoids controversial issues, or if it ends up reflecting a majority view that is seen as partisan and not conducive to reconciliation, the exercise will have done little to further the cause of peace.

The violence in Rakhine State represents a major test for the government as it seeks to maintain law and order without rekindling memories of the recent authoritarian past. It also represents a challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to demonstrate a greater commitment, publicly and privately, to the fundamental rights of all those who live in Myanmar.

Above all, both government and opposition need to show moral leadership to calm the tensions and work for durable solutions to a problem that could threaten Myanmar’s reform process and the stability of the country.

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Topics: Asia • Barack Obama

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. H.L.Mali

    President Obama wants to help Bangladeshi Muslims as he is also Muslims by birth. Rangoonis ned not to protect or keep on Mynmar land Bangladeshi Muslims. It is cancer.

    November 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • jon

      That is a bigoted response from a divisive individual.Stop being a bigot and accept the fact that you have a black president. It has nothing to do with the story. Also learn english and post a correct response!

      November 18, 2012 at 12:35 am | Reply
      • Rick

        Jon, learn English yourself first, especially capital letters.
        H.L.Mali didn´t say a word about Obama´s skin colour. In fact, blacks suffer and suffered the most in Mohammedan societies (or you don´t want to mention that?).
        The main source of problems are both Muslim extremists and 'useful' people for them like you in the West.
        By the way, when you stop being useful you would be disposable units for Yihadi-dimwit$$ ! Shalóm from one of
        Herman Cain´s fans!

        November 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Ihtesham Kayani

      Well I think its other way round, he has gone to pat the killers of 20000 Muslims, I find no other reason for a US president to visit such a country.

      November 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
      • Chen

        What's wrong with killing 20000 violent criminals? Nothing.

        November 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • lack luster

      Hell H.L. Mali. I believe you are from Myanmar. I want to ask you a question: how long had been Rohingyas are known to be living in Myanmar? is it 50, 60, 70, or hudreds of years? Is there any Rohingya 45+ years of old? For your kind information, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, came into existence just 41 years ago. How do you say those 45+ years old Rohingyas came from Bangladesh then? Accept the fact man.

      November 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • lack luster

      If those Rohingyas came from British India, why don't you deal with the British then? If they came from Pakistan, why don't you deal with Pakistan? @ Mr. Myanmari H.L. Mali

      November 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  2. Nyi Nyi Htwe

    Louise Arbour's commentary reveals fatal flaws, is biased and one-sided and tends to exaggerate, so it's absurd, doesn't have reliability. So-called Rohingya, a fabricated name by Bengali, are illegal Bengali immigrants entering not only into Burma but also India where these Bengali Islamic Jihadists always create problems incited and funded by oil states. Quite clearly, an immigrant issue cannot present the whole mainstream politics, an ongoing transitional process to democracy in Burma.

    November 18, 2012 at 3:31 am | Reply
  3. Kyne

    This is exactly why change has to come slow and in small packages. It's unrealistic to demand and expect an instant switch of an entire society from authoritarian to democratic. I applaud their effort and the results achieved so far. I wish them well and hope they can show that "it can be done", from within, without a foreign power's military intervention.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:40 am | Reply
  4. Asif from Jeddah

    Where is Aung San Suu in this situation. Completely silent

    November 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Aung San Suu Kyi urged tolerance in response to a wave of ethnic violence in the west of the country, but had refused to take sides. She said she didn't want to take the moral leadership and promote a particular cause, without looking into the sources of problems. In an interview with BBC, she said, "Both sides are displeased because I will not take a stand with them, but my stand is that first let us establish rule of law."

      November 19, 2012 at 5:40 am | Reply
      • lack luster

        When you stay in the midde of truth and lie and refuse to take a side, you are infact encouraging the lie. There is no gray scale here. This woman Suu Kyi does not hold the eligibility to be a house maid, but luckily got famous. Noble peace price is a real joke.

        November 19, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
      • Ashim

        So its OK not to state where you stand because it will displease both sides to a dispute? Do they give out Nobel Prizes for diplomacy (or worse)?

        November 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  5. General Sherman

    Although Barack Obama and his henchmen are in a big Huzzah over Myanmar's democratation, it appears that the genie is out of the bottle. Now they have a Buddhist majority persecuting a Muslim minority. This proves that democracy doesn't always work despite it's high sounding name. As the Italians learned in the 1920's, sometimes it is better to prosper under a dictatorship than to languish in a democracy.

    November 19, 2012 at 9:20 am | Reply
  6. Naing Myo

    Rohingya aka Bengali had invaded Rakhine and displace Rakhine people by reproducing at uncontrollable amount and killing and attacking small Rakhine villages. Don't you even realize the name of the State is Rakhine which is name after the Rakhine people. Oldest know Rakhine history is recorded at BC 3525. Please come and visit Myanmar and learn the ground situation on hand.

    November 19, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • lack luster

      Hello Naing Myo, why talking like a stupid? Bangladesh came into existence just 41 years ago. Is there any Rohingya older than 41 year in your country (Burma or Myanmar, or whatever nonsense it is called)?

      November 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  7. Mohamhead

    Muslims keep killing non-muslims all over the world and now that they get a taste of their own medicine, they cry like little babies. Muslims are just pathetic.

    November 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  8. Raoul Hamsa

    I think before we even start talking about the Rohyngia issue, we should address the Christian persecution in muslim countries and solve it. Christians have the right to practice their religion and spread their religion in muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.

    November 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  9. Swami

    Muslims cause trouble wherever they are. Kick all the muslims out of Buddhist Burma.

    November 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
    • Ashim

      And all the swamis from all forums!

      November 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  10. Steve

    This is a pretty lame article. There's nothing new in it and every student could come up with these conclusions. I wonder how much Louise Arbour is getting paid to write something like this. But it seems like the main goal was too portray muslims as the poor victims, while at the same time ignoring they were responsible for the violence in the 1st place. Just ridiculous.

    November 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  11. RLTJ's

    When those involve in a conflict talk or think in terms of tribes and religions instead of putting the real problem on the table then they are far from peace. They live in a world that revolves around ethnic cleansing, war, genocide and the likes. There are only overlords and underdogs in there. I don't even think any of them deserves outside help.

    If the problem is land grabbing then the problem is land grabbing and people should be talking about land grabbing leaving religions and tribes out of it. Land grabbing is, I think, a universal crime.

    Religious chauvinism and racism should be eradicated as they have only war and violence for their fruits.

    November 19, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  12. johnny

    I have recruited and worked with Myanmar engineers and technicians for over a decade. I find educated Myanmarese to be very hardworking and consciencious people. Which leads me to always believe that when Myanmar become a free democratic country, there is only one way to go for Myanmar – up .

    Besides political freedom, after 40 years of control by a no-brainer dictatorship, Burmese people are hungry for economic success which I have confidence they will achieve it in the next 2 decades. Myanmar or Burma is poised to be the next rising star in Asia.

    November 19, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply

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