The June e thnic and religious violence in the northwest ( Rakhine State, the northwestern coast just south of Bangladesh) caused an uproar in Moslem countries, with calls for retribution against Myanmar for allowing it to happen. Long simmering tensions between the Moslem migrants from Bangladesh and the native Buddhists erupted into widespread fighting two months ago after some Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman. Weeks of violence followed. This caused over a thousand casualties, most of them Moslem and thousands of buildings destroyed. This has displaced nearly 100,000 people (about 75 percent Moslem).
The Moslems and Buddhists have never gotten along and there’s always been some tension. Until recently, the military government suppressed any open talk of these tensions. But since the elections last year, there’s been more freedom of the press and that has included more public discussion by Buddhists about how much they dislike the Rohingyas.
Rakhine State has a population of 3.8 million, with about 800,000 of them Moslems, mostly Rohingyas. These are Bengalis, or people from Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began migrating to Burma during the 19th century. At that time the British colonial government ran Bangladesh and Burma, and allowed this movement, even though the Buddhist Burmese opposed it. Britain recognized the problem too late, but the Bengali Moslems were still in Burma when Britain gave up its South Asian colonies after World War II (1939-45).
Bangladesh has refused to take these Moslems back as Bangladeshis, and the Rohingya have come to consider themselves a separate group. Burma never let the Rohingya become citizens, which helped stoke tensions between the Moslems and Buddhists. Bangladesh has long had too many people, and illegal migration to neighboring areas (mainly India) has been a growing problem. In the 1990s, an outbreak of violence led to over a quarter million Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. Some 28,000 are in refugee camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live outside the camps in Bangladesh and some are in Thailand, where they are considered economic migrants, and thus illegal.
This year Bangladesh changed its refugee policy and refused to accept any more Rohingya, considering the refugee camps an unfair burden caused by Burmese refusal to absorb the Rohingya already in their territory. This has led to Burma creating heavily guarded camps for these displaced Rohingya. Aid workers call these camps prisons, but the Burmese want to limit the movement of Rohingya who now consider themselves at war with Buddhists. But only about ten percent of the Rohingya have been forced from their homes. The rest live in (usually segregated) villages and neighborhoods throughout Rakhine State.
Hindus, Christians or Buddhists in this region have bad memories of Moslems, who have been around for over a thousand years as invaders and violent religious bigots. These memories are sustained by the current wave of Islamic terrorism around the world and within the region. The UN is trying to get Burma to absorb the Rohingya, but the Burmese believe that absorption is not practical and these Moslems must move to a Moslem country (preferably Bangladesh, where they came from.) The Burmese resent the UN interference and have arrested some aid workers who are helping the Rohingya.
The Burmese police and army are accused of doing little to halt the violence, and often taking the side of rioting Buddhist civilians. Because of this, Burma has agreed to investigate the violence and is under international pressure to allow the Rohingya to stay and become citizens. But the Burmese government is under domestic pressure to take a hard line on the Rohingya, who are seen as alien invaders, even though most of them have lived in Burma for generations. This situation is quite common in the region. There are many more, most of them quite recent, illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India, where frequent outbreaks of violence with Indians do not get a lot of international attention because the Indians involved are often Moslems. There is a similar situation in Iran and Pakistan, where millions of unwelcome Afghan refugees (from the 1980s Russian invasion) refuse to leave. China and Thailand have thousands of unwelcome Burmese refugees from the tribal rebellions in rural Burma. China has recently forced many of the refugees back into Burma, while Thailand threatens to do so. In neither of these cases is religion an issue. But when the illegal migrants are Moslem and the people they are displacing are infidels (non-Moslem) the Islamic world considers any resistance to be part of the global “war on Islam.”
At the moment, the Burmese want the Rohingya restricted to guarded camps. The Moslem world calls these camps prisons, but the Burmese public sees allowing the Rohingya to go free as leading to eventual establishment of a separatist Moslem territory in Rakhine State. The Burmese note the eight years of Islamic terror in southern Thailand and the Islamic terrorist problem in India. Most Burmese see themselves as victims of Moslem aggression and invasion, but the Moslem world sees Burma as making war on Moslems. The rest of the world calls for an end to violence and some kind of justice. The problem is that the Burmese Buddhists and the world’s Moslems have a very different concept of justice in this case.
August 23, 2012: The government freed six of the twelve foreign aid workers it had arrested in June and accused of helping to promote the violence.
August 20, 2012: The government has eliminated direct censorship. That is, publications no longer have to submit material to government censors before they print it. But there is still censorship. Various old (from the period of military rule) laws still allow the government to shut down publications believed to be causing trouble. Government officials decide what “trouble” means in each situation. You still need government permission to create a new publication.
August 19, 2012: The government announced the creation of a commission to investigate the recent (June) violence between Buddhists and Moslems ( Rohingya) in the northwest. The commission will attempt to come up with recommendations that will satisfy foreign (mainly Moslem) critics. Moslem nations want to be free to operate aid efforts among the Rohingya without Burmese supervision. The Burmese are reluctant to do this because so many Islamic charities are fronts for Islamic terrorist organizations. Several large Islamic terrorist groups (Taliban, al Qaeda) have already declared war on Burma and called for all other Moslems to join in.
August 18, 2012: In the north (Kachin state) there was a brief gun battle between soldiers and armed members of the ABSDF (All Burma Students’ Democratic Front). There were no injuries. The ABSDF consists of rebel Burmese from the south who have established bases in the Kachin tribal territories and allied themselves with Kachin rebels. This particular clash was apparently an accident, as soldiers guarding a supply convoy to an isolated army base through they might be ambushed.
August 14, 2012: There was another outbreak of ethnic violence in Rakhine State, leaving three dead and over a dozen wounded.
August 5, 2012: There was another outbreak of violence in Rakhine State, where over 300 homes of Rohingya were burned and over 3,000 people forced to flee the Buddhist attacks.
August 2, 2012: Security forces seized 1.4 million amphetamine pills and 116 kilometers (255 pounds) of heroin last month. The drug gangs are becoming more active in the north and most of their production is headed for China. This has led to a join Burma-China police taskforce to go after drug gangs that are operating on both sides of the border. The drug gangs are controlled by tribal rebel groups and the income supports the tribal armies that the government has been fighting for generations. Despite current peace deals, the recent growth of drug production up north indicates that the tribes (or at least some warlords) intend to maintain their private armies.
August 1, 2012: Bangladesh ordered three foreign aid groups to stop work among Rohingya refugees along the Burma border. Bangladesh considers the Rohingya, who were originally from Bangladesh, to be Burmese (because the Rohingya have been in Burma for generations.)