A long and vicious spell of communal clashes has been occurring between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma (Myanmar) for the past four months. The internal situation remains highly volatile there, leading to the almost complete segregation of the two communities in towns like Sittwe. This decades-old impasse is rooted in a dispute between two communities over the alleged immigrant status of the region's Muslims. Although many Rohingyas have been residing in Myanmar for several generations, they are denigrated as foreigners due to their origin in Bangladesh.
The present unrest began in June of this year when the two communities turned on one another throughout Rakhine state. The resultant violence took the toll of at least 90 lives and destroyed around 3,000 homes, along with several monasteries and mosques. Fresh violence erupted on the night of Sunday, October 20th in Minyabar township, about 15 miles (25 kms) north of the coastal state capital of Sittwe. The new rioting far exceeded earlier outbreaks, with an unknown number of dead and hundreds of homes burnt to ground. The riots are continuing unabated despite tough measures such as a dusk-to-dawn curfew declared by the authorities. Violence is spreading further north to Marak-U township, despite Minyabar's remoteness (both places are reachable only by foot).
The overall situation looks quite grim. No less than 70,000 people have been displaced since the communal clashes began in the June. Ethnic segregation in this area is broad-based and deep and reaches as far as the capital of Sittwe itself, where Rakhines can walk freely while the Rohingyas remain mostly confined to a series of displaced-person camps outside the main centre of the city.
All this reflects a very bitter acrimony persisting between both of the prominent Burmese communities about which the current government has done little. There is an urgent need of overall political and economic reforms including expansion of education and better employment and recreational facilities to remove poverty, provide greater opportunity to people for participation in the political process, and ensure social and economic development in the region. Unfortunately, the human rights record and respect for democratic participation has been very poor under the current military junta. Reforms need to be instituted forthwith both to win over the common man's faith in the government and obtain the support of the outside world, various donor agencies and NGOs in particular, that can provide required economic and technical assistance with a view to ensuring speedy socio-economic development in Burma's vast undeveloped regions.
Dr. Tripathi is an associate professor of political science at MDPG College, Pratapgarh, India.