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Solutions to Communal Conflict in Myanmar

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A local man from central Myanmar explained tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. "Myanmar is a Buddhist country," he declared. "We are under siege from Muslims who came from Bengal to take our land and rape our children." He insisted, "We Buddhists are a peaceful and tolerant people, but Islam is a religion of the sword."

Simmering communal conflict between Buddhists and Muslims erupted when Thida Htwe, a young Buddhist woman, was raped and murdered on her way home from sewing class in Sittwe on May 28, 2012. Buddhists in Rakhine State launched reprisals, killing hundreds and displacing 140,000 Rohingya. Three Muslim men were accused of raping Thida Htwe and, after a rushed two week trial, sentenced to death. Human rights groups criticized the trial for falling short of international standards.

In March 2013, communal violence erupted in Meiktila and surrounding villages where mobs killed scores and displaced tens of thousands in mainland Myanmar. The Government declared a state of emergency and deployed special police to areas of sectarian strife. While it managed to temporarily quell the violence, its response has been insufficient to address underlying causes of conflict.

Many Burmans, who are Buddhist and Myanmar's largest ethnic group, have deep-seated resentment towards Rohingya, who are Muslim and darker-skinned. Rohingya, who number about 800,000 in Rakhine State, reject the label "Bengali," which they say misrepresents the historic roots of Rohingya in the Arakan Kingdom (today's Rakhine State). Islam in Myanmar dates back to the 8th century; Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors have coexisted for centuries.

Burma's ethnic balance shifted in the early 20th century with the influx of laborers from India. According to the British census, the Muslim population in Arakan increased from 58,255 to 178,647 in between 1891 and 1911. Facilitated by the East India Company, Chittagong Bengalis (from what is now Bangladesh) sought agricultural work in the sparsely populated valleys of Arakan, as well as other regions in Myanmar. The East India Company extended its Bengal administration to Arakan, lifting the internal boundary between the two colonial territories.

Thant Myint U, a historian and prominent Burmese intellectual, explains that native Burmans reacted with a "racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear" as Indian immigrants became a majority in Burma's major cities including Rangoon. In 1947, a Mujahid Party was established in Northern Arakan. Many viewed it as a Trojan horse for the formation of an autonomous Muslim entity.

General Ne Win seized power in 1962. Reacting to fears of "Islamicization," he launched military operations that culminated with "Operation King Dragon" in 1978. The 1982 Citizenship Law institutionalized discrimination against Rohingya, denying them legal status as citizens of Myanmar. The junta's policies marginalized Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhist alike. Today they are still subject to discrimination: Rohingya are not allowed to travel outside Rakhine State. They cannot own land. A 2005 regulation prohibits Rohingya from having more than two children. Rohingya men and boys are being rounded up in Rakhine.

Disinformation muddles the view of Myanmar's Muslims. They are mischaracterized as expansionist, driven by an agenda to "Islamicize" the country. Islam is portrayed as a violent religion, which supports forced conversion and institutionalizes violence.

For sure, there are many examples where Muslim extremists exploit feelings of anger or resentment of injustice to justify extremism. In such instances, they use oppression as an excuse for violence to advance a radical ideology. They embrace jihad to advance their extremist ideology. They reject constitutional democracy as the basis for secular government, because it empowers human rulers over the laws of God.

For many Muslims, however, the term Islamist simply describes an orthodox Muslim who is devoted to Islamic studies and an Islamic way of life. They distinguish between "Lesser Jihad," which is warfare and "Greater Jihad," which is the personal struggle of each individual to live a righteous life inspired by the teachings of Mohammed. Jihad is a struggle to extend the boundaries of peace, purify Islam, and create a just social order. They reject fanaticism citing traditions of pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and open-mindedness within Islam. Moreover, they insist that violence committed in the name of God contradicts the traditions and noble values of Islam.

The word Islam is derived from the Arabic word for peace (Salam). The Qur'an opens with an invocation of God's mercy and repeatedly urges Muslims to practice patience, compassion and kindness. It portrays God as merciful and compassionate. "God does not love those who do wrong" (Qur'an 42:40). It embraces tolerance, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and communication between people. "Fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not aggressors" (Qur'an 2:190). It forbids murder and suicide. "Nor take life, which Allah has made sacred, except for just cause"(Qur'an 17:33). "Do not kill yourselves" (Qur'an 4:29). The Qur'an also encourages Muslims to treat others with justice, securing for them safety on Muslim territories and imposing a blood payment on anyone who violates their rights. "(Allah) made you into nations and tribes so you may know each other" (Qur'an 49:13). "Whoever kills a soul...it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." (Qur'an 2:256).

Myanmar's leaders and people deserve great credit for embracing democracy and political transition. However, further steps are needed to consolidate reforms and social progress.

The suffering of Rohingya can be addressed via unfettered humanitarian access. Displaced persons must be able to return home in safety and with dignity. And the government should provide a path to citizenship.

The rule of law is paramount. Entrenching the rule of law is the best way to build confidence in Rakhine and other religiously diverse communities. Inter-communal violence can be mitigated when parties feel their interests are upheld through the administration of justice, and disputes can be resolved fairly by an impartial and competent judiciary. Columbia University's School of Law is working with members of parliament, educators and civil society to help strengthen the rule of law.

Historical dialogue can also contribute to durable peace. Developing a shared narrative, while listening to and developing respect for disparate views, will promote reconciliation. Experts from Columbia's Alliance for Historical Dialogue are available to assist discussions about shared history.

Columbia just convened an "Inter-Faith Dialogue: Religious Roots of Social Harmony"(Yangon, January 19). The meeting was attended by leading religious scholars and practitioners of the Buddhist, Muslim and Christian traditions. Participants agreed that religion must never be used to justify violence. Their joint statement condemned hate speech, which promotes extremism and can incite conflict.

Participants also explored practical outcomes. They agreed to develop curricula on social harmony drawing from teachings in Theravada Buddhism, as well as from the Qur'an and Sunna. The project emphasizes grass-roots education on religious teachings of social harmony in parts of the country where sectarianism is most divisive. It will also promote other confidence-building measures, including reciprocal visits to holy sites.

The people of Myanmar must take the lead in an inclusive dialogue on the country's problems. However, international institutions can help with capacity building and other types of expertise - strengthening the rule of law, facilitating discussion on shared history, and supporting inter-faith dialogue. An inclusive dialogue enhances mutual understanding, which is an alternative to demonization justifying communal violence.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.