New Political Space, Old Tensions: History, Identity and Violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar

By Burke, Adam | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2016 | Go to article overview

New Political Space, Old Tensions: History, Identity and Violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar


Burke, Adam, Contemporary Southeast Asia


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. …

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