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Preventing Sectarian Strife in Myanmar

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Yangon -- Simmering tensions between Buddhists in Myanmar's Rakhine State and Muslim Rohingya exploded in June 2012. A Buddhist girl was raped and murdered, leading to reprisals and a spiral of violence that left scores dead and thousands homeless. New violence erupted last week. Rohingya neighborhoods in Sittwe and whole villages along the coast were razed. Hundreds were killed, including 130 Rohingya fleeing the conflict when their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal. At least 300,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in squalid camps on Myanmar's border with Bangladesh.

President Thein Sein has been proactive about the current crisis. The Government declared a curfew and deployed 10,000 troops to help quell the violence. Security forces may have exacerbated the problem. Rohingya claim that troops fired on them during the melee.

Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingya originally hail from West Bengal. Today they are stateless people, denied citizenship in Myanmar and rejected by Bangladesh. The UN calls them, "one of the most persecuted people in the world."

The dispute between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya goes back centuries. The Sultan of Bengal surrendered control of the Rakhine Kingdom in 1531. At the time, Rakhine's vast territory extended from the Ganges to the Ayeyarwaddy River, including the Chittagong region in modern-day Bangladesh. The Rakhine Kingdom remained independent until 1826, when it was ceded to Britain after the First Anglo-Burma war. Unskilled Bengali laborers flooded into Lower Burma in the 1870s.

In the Second World War, Rakhine became a battleground between Japan and Britain, with Britain arming the Rohingya and Japan siding with Rakhine. After the war, Britain imported large numbers of unskilled Rohingya laborers. Their influx intensified after India's partition in 1947, and with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

All Burmese suffered under the country's military dictatorship. Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law is grossly discriminatory. The law accords citizenship and identity cards only to those whose parent or grandparent belongs to an "indigenous race." Those whose ancestry lived in Burma prior to 1823 or whose parents were citizens can themselves be citizens. Marginalization of ethnic and religious groups is the root cause of Myanmar's many conflicts.

When we met last week in Naypitaw, Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized that the rule of law was paramount. A commission of inquiry into recent events in Rakhine should be established. Instigators of the Rakhine riots must be prosecuted. Corrupt local officials and customs agents should be investigated. Placing Myanmar's forces under a professional authority, not the Defense Minister's command, would encourage professionalism and accountability.

Humanitarian access is critical to relieve the suffering of victims. The international community should increase its life-saving support. Donors should be careful, however, that their assistance does not turn temporary camps into permanent settlements.

Satellite imagery is the only record of last week's destruction. Independent monitoring of conditions on-the-ground can serve as a preventive measure. The government is not likely to welcome official observers. But it could accept a civilian monitoring mission of non-governmental organizations from countries in Southeast Asia. A similar arrangement was tried in Aceh during its peace process with Jakarta.

Bangladesh should be pressured to fulfill its obligations under international law and provide a safe haven to those fleeing violence. Despite its endemic poverty and sky-rocketing population, Bangladesh cannot be excused for barring Rohingya.

The international community typically focuses on the underlying causes of conflict. But it would be provocative to force the reintegration of Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines at this time. Wounds are raw and need time to heal.

Economic development is the foundation of a long-term solution. Rakhine lacks a state-wide development plan. Basic services, especially health services, are deficient. A program to promote livelihoods, particularly for women, is needed.

Festering problems have regional security implications beyond Myanmar's borders. Saudi Arabia offered $50 million in humanitarian assistance. However, Saudi aid comes with strings. The Myanmar Government also rejected a proposal by the Organization of Islamic Countries to establish a liaison office in Rakhine. It fears that Saudi or OIC involvement could exacerbate religious tensions and create a beachhead for Muslim extremism.

The latest round of violence comes at a time when Myanmar is trying to rehabilitate its image in order to gain investment and development assistance. Myanmar has embarked on an ambitious reform course after decades as a closed and repressive society. Violence in Rakhine risks eroding international support. It could also be used by democracy's detractors to roll-back reforms and put the brakes on peace talks with Myanmar's rebel ethnic groups.

David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, recently visited Myanmar.