Thursday, July 26, 2012

Q&A: Unrest in Burma's Rakhine state

A state of emergency has been declared in the western Rakhine state of Burma, after deadly communal clashes. The BBC News website explains what lies behind the latest unrest.

What sparked the latest violence?

The rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in Rakhine in May set off a chain of deadly sectarian clashes.

On 4 June, 10 Muslim men were killed after an angry crowd attacked a bus in the Taungup district, apparently mistakenly believing some passengers were responsible for the murder
Three Muslim men were later arrested for the rape. Two have now been sentenced to death, one died in custody
After Friday prayers following the bus attack, Muslims gathered in the town of Maung Daw
The crowd turned angry and began attacking nearby buildings
Police came to quell the protest but the crowd dispersed and began to set fire to predominantly Rakhine Buddhist villages in the area.
Curfew was declared in Maung Daw but the violence escalated and spread to many towns
Buddhists also launched reprisal attacks on Muslim villages.
Why has a state of emergency been declared and what does it mean?

In response to the violence, a state of emergency was declared across Rakhine. A state of emergency allows the introduction of martial law, which means the military can take over administrative control of the region.

State television said the order was in response to "unrest and terrorist attacks" and "intended to restore security and stability to the people immediately".

It is the first time that the current government has declared a state of emergency anywhere in Burma, and in a televised speech President Thein Sein said the violence could endanger moves towards democracy and stability.

What is the sectarian angle to the violence?

There have been long-standing tensions between Rakhine people, who are Buddhist and make up the majority of the state's population, and Muslims.

Most of these Muslims identify themselves as Rohingya, a group that originated in part of Bengal, now called Bangladesh.

In the towns bordering Bangladesh, where the violence has taken place, the majority of the population is Muslim.

In this latest outbreak of violence, it is unclear if the Muslims accused of murdering the Buddhist women, or those killed on the bus, or those involved in communal violence, are Rohingyas.

Overseas-based Rohingya rights groups say that because of the latest violence, Rohingyas have been attacked.

Who are the Rohingyas?

The United Nations describes Rohingya as a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. It says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

But even the origins of the word Rohingya, and how they came to be in Burma, is controversial with some historians saying the group dates back centuries and others saying it only emerged as a campaigning force last century.

The Burmese government says they are relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent. As a result, the country's constitution does not include them among indigenous groups qualifying for citizenship.

Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, who they view as Muslim people from another country.

The Rohingyas, on the other hand, feel they are part of Burma and claim persecution by the state.

Is there a risk this might escalate further?

It is very difficult for journalists to operate in the region and verify reports.

But observers believe there could be more communal violence.

Analysts say that communal tensions with a religious and sectarian tinge have the potential to spark wider unrest and this is what will concern the government.

The United Nations World Food Programme says around 90,000 people have been displaced by the unrest.

What kind of threat does this pose for the Burmese state?

The troubles are being seen as a key test for Burma, which saw a nominally civilian government elected in 2010 after decades of oppressive military rule.

The clashes have raised concerns about the fragility of Burma's democracy.

President Thein Sein has said that the violence puts the country's moves towards democracy in danger.

It is important for Burma to be seen as a stable state, but it is always going to have to contend with the fact that it is one of Asia's most ethnically diverse states and people are watching to see how the government handles the tensions.

No comments:

Post a Comment