An Urgent Need to Tackle Religious Tensions in Myanmar


An Urgent Need to Tackle Religious Tensions in Myanmar

30 Oct 2014

Amid reports of a surge in Rohingya Muslims fleeing Rakhine State in western Myanmar, the International Crisis Group and the Centre for Strategic & International Studies sum up the need for urgent action, not only in Rakhine State but in the country as a whole. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics extracts the key findings in the context of recent events, and what this means for religious tensions in Myanmar and how to tackle them.

All the signs are pointing towards a desperate need for more urgent action to be taken to find a way forward in Myanmar to tackle communal tensions between the Rakhine Buddhist community and the Rohingya Muslim community. Concerns over the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar have grown over recent years and are now coming to a head.

On average, 900 Rohingya Muslims are leaving Myanmar per day.

The latest news to emerge is of the surge in the number of Rohingya Muslims leaving Myanmar, reported to be an average of 900 people per day, almost 10,000 in less than two weeks and over 100,000 since the recent violence began in 2012; this from an estimated Rohingya Muslim population of between 800,000 and one million. All this is happening at a time when the Rohingya Muslim debate grows regionally and internationally, especially after the leader of al-Qaeda came out in their support. This is seen by many as an attempt to show that the group still has some influence after the surge of ISIS.

With elections now set in the country for late 2015, there is a real need to tackle the religious tensions, but with the ongoing debate around the exclusion of the Rohingya Muslims from the recent census and the proposed government action plan for Rakhine State, there is still plenty at stake.

Both the International Crisis Group report (ICG), Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State and the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Myanmar: Regressed, Stalled, or Moving Forward? come to similar conclusions and recommendations, stating that there are no easy solutions, but steps have to be taken not only on a political level within Myanmar, but regionally and internationally to ensure inter-religious tensions are tackled at the highest level.

International Crisis Group Report: Key Findings

The ICG report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, published on 22 October 2014, looks in detail about the specific issues facing Rakhine state and the historical background leading up to the current situation – a complex mix of intercommunal and inter-religious tensions. The report gives a balance, addressing the Rakhine grievances from a Buddhist perspective and from the Muslim perspective. 

  • There is a risk of radicalisation, with concerns over the activities of domestic and international Muslim extremist networks. The report states that these concerns stem from: a history of mujahidin insurgency; evidence that Muslims from Myanmar were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan; threats against Myanmar by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in 2013; calls by an Indonesian extremist leader for Muslims to wage jihad in Myanmar in 2013; and threats by the leader of ISIS to take revenge on Myanmar for abuses against the Muslim populations;
  • The report says that the key question is whether there is a risk that radicalisation might lead to more terrorist type responses and due to political marginalisation that some of the Rohingya community will be attracted to violent extremism, particularly in the context in which Muslims in northern Rakhine state are denied religious freedoms, which could also contribute to extremism;
  • Rakhine Buddhists have tended to be cast as violent extremists, which ignores the diversity of opinions that exists and the fact that they themselves are a long-oppressed minority. They are concerned that their culture is under threat and that they could soon become a minority in their state. These fears, whether well-founded or not, need to be acknowledged if solutions are to be developed;
  • The report highlights that as increasing numbers of Muslims are driven out of Myanmar, the situation becomes a more regional one, with destinations including Australia, Bangladesh and Thailand. This in turn has lead to immigration concerns and a humanitarian situation with thousands of Muslim Rohingya taking to the coast, including in Thailand where the Rohingya are taken from their detention centres and put out to sea, with the risk then of falling into the hands of traffickers;
  • There are no easy solutions the report finds. The problem is being dealt with as a humanitarian situation but a political solution is required, and the legal status of the Rohingya is key to this, but also finding a way to ease Rakhine fears while protecting the rights of Muslim communities;
  • The international community, especially the UN agencies have a key role in ensuring the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslim communities are protected, particularly in the context of the Rakhine State Action Plan, which looks at issues such as security, stability and the rule of law, citizenship verification and socio-economic development, and which it says at present is fairly vague. It is also unclear how much of the plan will be implemented before the 2015 election;
  • Unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country's cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide.

The report can be read in full here.

Centre for Strategic & International Studies Report: Key Findings

The CSIS report, Myanmar: Regressed, Stalled or Moving Forward?, also published on 22 October 2014, draws together the findings of a delegation who visited the country in August 2014, to examine the status of the Myanmar transition in three key dimensions: health and development, political reform and governance and conflict resolution with the country's minority groups.

  • The delegation found there were positive signs in the country, that the nation is turning a corner and that major, enduring changes in governance, development and conflict resolution are within reach;
  • The delegation noted that the situation in Rakhine State was a humanitarian disaster and will cause further damage if unresolved, noting that only recently did the government sign a Memorandum of Understanding to allow humanitarian teams back into the country;
  • The communal violence between Buddhist and Muslims continues to flare, where it says 250 people have died and around 150,000 made homeless since this outbreak of violence in 2012;
  • The reports finds that the government has done little to track down the perpetrators of the violence and is proposing legislation to limit religious conversions;
  • In terms of peace negotiations, the report notes the sentiment amongst political leaders that agreements need to be sorted before the 2015 elections. The elections will be "transitional" according to observers, but the report notes that one scenario for the election result is that the military will continue to secure 25 percent of the seats;
  • The report notes other socio-economic conditions in the country, including that the economy grew more than 7 percent during the last two years, due to reforms such as providing a more legal structure for foreign investors. Education has improved since 2012, with students returning to university. Still, Myanmar mandates only five years of primary education – one of the lowest in Southeast Asia;
  • The report has recommendations for the role of the U.S in the country, including President Obama's attendance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Myanmar in November 2014, which will be timely to push forward human rights and the treatment of the Rohingya.

The report can be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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