New political space, old tensions: history, identity and violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

AuthorBurke, Adam

Repeated violent attacks and arson campaigns perpetrated by organized gangs targeted Muslim communities in Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2012 and 2013. The attacks came after decades of tension between the Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority. Many Muslims--mainly those often known as Rohingya--in Rakhine State are effectively stateless, having failed to attain any form of citizenship. (1)

Campaigns against Muslims in Rakhine State, who make up around one third of the State's overall population of about 3.2 million, (2) have been described by Human Rights Watch as "ethnic cleansing". (3) In 2012, groups of local Rakhine activists razed communities to the ground in central districts of the State as part of a concerted effort to change the area's ethnic composition. Further violent clashes have been attributed to perpetrators from both the minority and majority communities, but reputable sources agree that the main aggressors were affiliated with Rakhine Buddhist networks. (4) Casualty figures are unreliable, but up to 1,000 people, the majority of them Muslim, are thought to have died in inter-communal violence during 2012. In two waves of attacks, most of the Muslims living in central parts of Rakhine State were displaced from their communities and relocated to isolated camps. Their freedom of movement remained restricted after the violence subsided. (5)

In most instances, a similar pattern of violence evolved. A specific and emotive flashpoint, such as allegations of offences committed by Muslim men against Rakhine women, was seized as a rallying call for a violent response by groups of mostly young Rakhine men. Tensions remained high and in 2015 most of the 140,000 Muslims who had fled from their homes were still confined to camps. (6)

Individuals associated with the 2012 violence appear to have close ties to ethnic Rakhine politicians such as Kyaw Zaw Oo, a political activist who published an outspoken revisionist tract alleging that Muslims in Rakhine State were aliens. Despite having been arrested for his role in the communal violence of 2012, he stood successfully for a parliamentary seat in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in the November 2015 general elections. (7)

This article explores the reasons behind the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State in 2012. It considers patterns identified in comparative analyses of communal and ethnic violence, and identifies the main factors that affect this specific case. The research approach uses primary data, consisting mainly of interviews by the author with key informants in Rakhine State and Yangon during several periods in 2013 and 2014. Secondary sources were also consulted, including media coverage, official government statements, reports from humanitarian agencies, online blogs and published academic work. (8) Taken together, these sources cover the circumstances and the wider context of the violence in Rakhine State at that time. The findings also take account of the outcome of the elections of 8 November 2015, an important landmark for politicians in Rakhine State and for all of Myanmar.

In addressing the reasons behind ethnic conflicts, researchers have considered specific aspects of violence, focusing on identifiable political and social factors that can be observed across recent conflicts. Empirical studies suggest that the risk of violence is greater among populations with high levels of stratification along ethnic lines whereby certain ethnic groups are more privileged than others. Frances Stewart's work builds on earlier literature addressing multiethnic societies and finds that disparities between ethnic groups or "horizontal inequalities" increase the likelihood of conflict. (9) Michael Mann states that in areas inhabited by different ethnic groups, a high level of nationalism defined along ethnic lines tends to justify extreme standpoints, enable leaders to create scapegoats out of minorities and reduce the scope to manage inter-group tensions. Relatively recent and rapid transitions from authoritarian to democratic government create space for "ethnic entrepreneurs" to drum up and exploit group animosities. (10) Other assessments have considered at length the importance of government responses to local conflicts and the instrumental role of local politicians in provoking violence. (11) These sources draw on case studies from India, Indonesia and other multi-ethnic countries of Southeast Asia that share some similarities with Rakhine State.

Rather than isolating a single factor or theory, this article emphasizes the specific context of the case study, encompassing the multiple causes and complex interactions that lead to violent conflict. Any single incident of ethnic violence stems from an interplay of economic, social and political dynamics that lead to immediate actions and define underlying causes. (12) The aim is to avoid reducing a complex reality to a narrower set of factors that may further comparative analysis, but then risk obscuring the subtleties and contradictions of real-world situations.

The term "ethnicity" is employed here in the constructivist sense, recognizing that ethnic groups are socially created. Their ascribed properties and the boundaries between them are chiefly the result of human interaction. (13) Definitions of, and the boundaries between, ethnic groups are flexible, yet they often endure over many generations. This definition avoids a primordial sense of ethnicity, in which the term takes on a meaning far closer to that of the word "race", implying permanence grounded in physical difference or immutable cultural properties

However, the widespread and persistent--even if inaccurate--belief that ethnic characteristics are somehow indelibly embedded in genes remains a significant factor in many societies. Ethnic identity is typically defined in Myanmar and across most of Southeast Asia in primordial terms, playing up the rights of a defined group of people (or a supposedly pure "race") to ancestral land. (14) State nationalism, and many independence movements, are built on a similar basis. (15) The term "race", or its equivalent in different languages, is still regularly used across Southeast Asia, for example on citizen identity cards.

The following sections explain how the violence in Rakhine State that flared up in 2012 can be linked both to broader trends across Myanmar and to the specific circumstances of the conflict-affected area. Information is presented under several subheadings: the historical roots of ethnic tensions; the minority status of both main groups of antagonists; recent political changes and their impact; local political processes; and international elements.

Historical Precedents, Ethnicity and Religious Nationalism

Recent violence in Myanmar builds on the past, including the legacy of colonialism. British imperial authority was gradually extended eastwards from India during the nineteenth century. Many Indians--Muslims, Hindus and others--followed in the same direction, moving to towns and cities across Burma. The colonial civil service, the police and the army were largely staffed by Indians. (16) Partly as a legacy of this colonial history, contemporary colloquial Burmese ethnic classifications do not distinguish clearly between Hindus or Muslims, or between those Muslims whose families have lived in Myanmar for generations and more recent immigrants. (17)

Even before independence in 1947, Burmese nationalists looked to assert the dominance of ethnic Burmans. (18) In (1930), anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu riots in Burma killed hundreds. Racial categories applied by colonial authorities were adapted to suit the needs and vision of post-independence rulers in a multi-ethnic state; they have been barely altered since. Common sentiments of identity are based on an ethnically defined concept of nationalism: 135 ethnic groups are accorded official status and grouped into eight indigenous "races". People perceived as descendants of migrants rather than indigenous are not recognized as a category, and mixed heritage is not included in the classifications. (19)

After the 1962 military takeover led by General Ne Win, around 300,000 Indians and their descendants fled the country. (20) A 1982 law formally restricted citizenship to people whose descendants lived in Myanmar before 1823, effectively disenfranchising many Indians who had remained. Muslims in northern Rakhine State were also affected by local and national travel regulations that limited their ability to leave their local township.

Ethnic identity is central to Myanmar's subnational politics. The country is organized into seven regions, in which ethnic Burmese are the majority, and seven states, each of which is associated with the ethnic group considered to be a majority in that area. Smaller areas where an ethnic group makes up the majority, yet does not have its own state, have been classified as Special Administrative Zones. Minority populations beyond a stated threshold are also entitled to special political representation within state and regional parliaments. Resistance against the government of Myanmar has been waged for over seventy years by armed ethnic groups, most ethnicities being represented by one or more of these groups as well as formal political parties.

This complex system and the long legacy of conflict have enshrined ethnic categories in the political system. As a result, population estimates and concerns over how ethnic groups are classified are highly contentious. With the advent of more open democratic competition, such a system is likely to generate major political tensions. Unsurprisingly, compilers of data for the 2014 national census decided that information on religion and ethnicity was considered too sensitive to release until tensions subsided in Rakhine State and nationally. (21)

Those people outside the 135 recognized ethnic groups are regarded as immigrants, have achieved only limited...

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