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.
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.