The sectarian crisis gripping Burma’s Arakan State is brutal, tragic and poses a serious threat to the entire country’s future. Yet alongside the horror, a sense of confusions reigns regarding exactly what is unfolding and where the various political actors actually stand.
We know that long-lingering racial tensions were tipped into violence last week when, following the rape and murder of a Arakanese Buddhist woman in Taungup, a mob putting the blame on local Ronhingya Muslims killed ten returning from their Mosque. We know that riots quickly spread, deadly retaliatory attacks broke out along ethnic lines, over a thousand homes were set ablaze and many people fled.
However, the number and identity of those killed remains shrouded in confusion and speculation. Whilst the official death toll stands at just over twenty, other sources put it at hundreds or even higher. Bizarre rumours circulate about the bodies of Muslims being dressed in Buddhist robes to skew media perceptions of the aggressors and victims. And across social networking sites, available inside Burma for the first time, residents and members of both diasporas vociferously defame each other, whilst pushing their own interpretation of events.
Political positions have also become clouded beyond the old discourse of democrats on one side and dictators on the other, that has dominated Burma for so long. Ominously, though perhaps not unexpected given how deep racial and religious division run, even some prominent leaders of the 1988 democratic uprising have taken sides and fuelled tensions by publicly declaring that the Rohingya are not an ethnic people of Burma, but rather Bangladeshi immigrants.
The government’s role is even murkier still and the subject of considerable speculation. On the one hand this could be pose a significant challenge to the fledging pseudo-civilian administration, after all ethnic pogroms are not constructive for a regime seeking to change its country’s image on the international stage. Additionally the organisation of violent mobs could be a threat, for whilst they are attacking other ethnic groups today what is to stop them turning on the authorities tomorrow?
On the other end of the spectrum, some commentators are arguing that this could seriously work to the government’s advantage. For once they are not the villains of the piece and surreally civilians are making unprecedented calls for more troops on the streets. Meanwhile the Rohingya people, who successive regimes have actively persecuted for so long, are facing their largest threat in recent history. And of course, the supposed dangers of free communication and organisation are being highlighted, obstinately legitimising future attempts to slow down reform.
The biggest advantage for the government however, is the horrendously difficult position that the situation poses for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Unlike the 88 Generation leaders, the NLD has so far stuck to calls for restraint and compassion, yet will come under increasing pressure to make an intervention, particularly during Suu Kyi’s European tour which gets underway today.
Should the NLD mount a defence of the Rohingya, they risk alienating themselves from the vast numbers across Burma who hold detrimental views of the community, particularly those Arakanese involved or caught up in the violence. It is a sad fact that merely by supporting the Rohingya people’s right to live peacefully in Burma, Suu Kyi and her party will lose the respect of many who currently support them. On the contrary, remaining silent or joining others in the anti-Rohingya camp, will mean comprising the party’s core principles of human rights and tolerance, whilst dealing a serious blow to their international support.
So great is the government’s potential to benefit from the NLD’s catch-22, that several Burma-watchers have gone as far as to suggest the violence has been deliberately orchestrated by Naypyidaw, an assertion supported by rumours of government troops disguised as civilians stoking mob attacks on either side. Of course, even these theories are complicated further by the realistic potential of divisions within the government and military, meaning that even if aspects of the army are behind this, it does not necessarily follow that President Thein Sein and his confidents are.
In amidst the confusion one thing is clear. With an unknown death toll, an unwinnable decision for the NLD, splits in the broader democracy movement and a wholly unknown government involvement that may range from sheer panic to calculated incitement of violence – Burma is undoubtedly facing its most serious challenge since the democratisation process began.