Myanmar: Promoting Reconciliation between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists of Rakhine State.

AuthorWeber, Katja


One of the most pressing challenges Myanmar confronts is the mistreatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Although Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's landslide victory in November 2015 has given reason for cautious optimism, a multistage process of reconciliation between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists is critically needed to build sustainable peace and promote justice. Tracing Buddhist/Muslim relations and drawing on scholarship examining reconciliation events, we propose a three-stage reconciliation process for Rakhine State and scrutinize steps to be taken to promote reconciliation.


GIVEN THAT BURMA/MYANMAR REMAINS ONE OF THE POOREST COUNTRIES in the world (Economist 2015,1), many have seen the November 8, 2015 landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) as a real opportunity to promote peace and prosperity in a country that has experienced civil war for decades and still is plagued by a host of non-traditional security challenges. Having been freed from many years of brutal rule by a military junta, the Burmese people are yearning for a better life. Even though the government of President U Thein Sein, formed in March 2011, has introduced significant political and economic reforms to move the country toward liberal democracy, many Burmese and representatives of the international community are looking to Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Myanmar's struggle for democracy, to lead the country toward a more peaceful future.

Among the numerous challenges Aung San Suu Kyi faces is national reconciliation between the government and armed ethnic groups. Particularly pressing are the human security challenges in Rakhine State, which, as the International Crisis Group (2008,1) explains, "are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict." Composed of a Buddhist majority (the Rakhine) and a sizeable Muslim minority (including the Kaman and the Rohingya), (1) Rakhine State, impoverished and underdeveloped, has seen for some time outbreaks of serious violence. Whereas, prior to the most recent elections, Aung San Suu Kyi had largely remained silent on the turmoil in Rakhine State--most likely not to alienate her many supporters from the Buddhist majority--her electoral victory has fueled hopes that she would speak out against glaring human rights violations, promote justice for all persecuted people in Myanmar, and help stabilize the country. The road to peace, however, will be long and difficult--as has become abundantly clear during the most recent tragic events in Rakhine State, when in August 2017 the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police outposts and the Burmese military responded with a massive security operation that caused over 900,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Not only can the military be counted on being a veto player at least some of the time, a point we will return to later, but these recent developments--which the UN has labeled "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing"--have also raised considerable doubt as to whether Aung San Suu Kyi will, in fact, stick out her neck to promote peace. Her renewed failure to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Rohingya has frustrated, even infuriated, many of her supporters, and some critics have gone as far as to suggest that her Nobel Peace Prize be rescinded. At this point, her prolonged silence is difficult to read, and it seems impossible to know whether it indicates indifference, cowardice, or a carefully calculated long-term strategy to promote peace.

What is clear at this point, we argue, is that to build sustainable peace and promote justice in Rakhine State, there remains a critical need for reconciliation between the Muslims and the Buddhists who make up the majority of Burmese society. Although we specifically focus on the tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists because the former see most of the persecution, we recognize the suffering of other Muslim groups in the country, such as the Kaman and Mandalay Muslims, who also have been affected by the rise in anti-Muslim sentiments.

During the present period of tremendous social, political, and economic change, the promotion of peace will require the involvement of numerous state and private actors at the domestic, regional, and international levels of governance. Clearly, the problem of reconciliation is not new, and a sizeable literature based on numerous case studies already exists. Scrutiny of this literature suggests that certain components may be important, and at times essential, for reconciliation, although they may not be sufficient. Because concepts such as restitution, repentance, or recognition are contextual--that is, they vary significantly from one setting to another--we argue that Myanmar, ultimately, has to find its own approach to reconciliation that best fits its specific situation. In doing so, however, it will be able to draw on experiences from other countries such as Germany, South Africa, East Timor, and Sri Lanka, to name but a few.

In the following, we first trace Buddhist/Muslim relations in Rakhine State from the seventh century to the present. We then draw on the works of Long and Brecke (2003), Rose (2005), Gibson (2006), and Olsen and colleagues (2010) as exemplary pieces of scholarship examining reconciliation events, and we glean various elements that have stood out in promoting reconciliation. Among these, recognition, truth-telling, reciprocity, repentance, and restitution in the form of reparations seem to feature prominently. (2) Next, we apply the above studies to Myanmar and analyze steps that have already been taken to promote reconciliation in Rakhine State. We then conclude by sketching plausible future scenarios.

Overview of Buddhist/Muslim Relations in Burma/Myanmar

Composed of 135 different nationally recognized ethnicities, Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world (Chaturvedi 2012). Situated on the western coast of Myanmar along the Bay of Bengal, and bordered by predominantly Muslim Bangladesh to the north, Rakhine State has become a natural convergence point for Muslim and Buddhist communities. Today, approximately one million self-identified Rohingya Muslims account for almost a third of the population of Rakhine State, with the rest being majority Buddhist in addition to a small minority of ethnic Kaman Muslims (Albert 2016).

A major point of contention centers on the date of the Rohingya's first arrival in Myanmar. (3) Whereas some historians argue that the Rohingya are "ethnically and religiously related to the Chittagonians of southern Bangladesh" (Chris Lewa, cited in Leider 2013,215) who arrived with British colonialists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Rohingya writers claim that they are the "descendants of Arab and Persian traders who have lived in the area for centuries" (Amnesty International, cited in Leider 2013,214). This claim is supported by historical records, which show that Arab Muslim traders first arrived in Arakan State in the early seventh century (Kyaw 2015). Other records indicate that, during Burmese rule from 1784 to 1826, Muslims in Rakhine State were "considered as descendants of Bengali slaves who had largely assimilated to local Rakhine society while keeping their own religious tradition" (Leider 2013, 225). Even though many scholars emphasize that the term "Rohingya"did not appear until the 1990s and that, prior to that, descendants of Muslims who migrated from Bengal to Rakhine were "rather uncontroversially referred to as 'Bengalis,'" many Rohingya insist that "a local Rakhine Muslim identity to be called 'Rohingya'has existed for centuries" (Leider 2013,211,230). Regardless of when the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar, we agree with Leider (2013,231) that the Rohingya "ideology validates the historical role of Muslims" and "essentializes a Muslim identity with Rakhine markers." (4)

Though conflict between self-identified Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine State has escalated in the last years, relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar have always been tense. Following the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825, Rakhine State, formerly known as the independent Kingdom of Arakan, was annexed to British India (International Crisis Group 2008,3). Under British occupation, there was a "significant migration of Muslims from Bengal to the area," which exacerbated the ethnic and religious mix in Rakhine State, "created socio-economic problems, and led to considerable resentment from the Rakhine Buddhist community" (ibid., 3). Political unrest ensued, beginning with an anti-Christian demonstration by the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA) in 1906. Predominately led by Buddhist monks, the organization's goal was to "regain respect for Buddhism and for Burman culture" (Crossman 2014,19). The relationship between Muslims and Buddhists further deteriorated when the Rakhine Muslims pledged their loyalty to Britain during World War II instead of sympathizing with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA),who supported the Japanese. During the war, both "Buddhist and Muslim communities formed armed units, and launched attacks on the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides" (International Crisis Group 2014,4).

Following an Allied victory in 1947, Burma sought independence from Great Britain. Bogyoke (Major General) Aung San, leader of the BIA and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, recognized that independence could not be attained if Burma were to remain internally fractured. He hence worked in partnership with Burmese and ethnic minority leaders to create a blueprint for a federal state with minority representation modeled after Western governments (Crossman 2014, 20). His vision for a federal government that was to include all of Burma's ethnic groups, however, never came about, because in July 1947 he was...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT