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Resolving Myanmar's Sectarian Violence Issue

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The sectarian violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state in 2012 escalated to a larger conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in the central part of the country in 2013.

The violence has resulted in the loss of more than 200 lives and made over 140,000 people homeless. Despite the country's democratic reforms, the simmering tensions between the two communities remain a concern among the international community.

The latest international concern was visible when Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States who made a surprise visit to Myanmar, gave a speech at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon on November 14.

While appreciating the Thein Sein government for initiating a "remarkable" political transition, Clinton called for an end to sectarian violence in the country.

Speaking to a mixed audience of political, social, and religious leaders, Clinton said, "The whole world cheers every piece of good news and is sick every time they read about sectarian violence ... Because everywhere on earth, people are tired of people killing each other and fighting each other because of their differences."

Clinton, who was visiting Myanmar with his philanthropic organization, the Clinton Foundation, also met President Thein Sein, House of Representatives' Speaker Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The timing of Clinton's visit and his message was important for three reasons. Firstly, Bill Clinton, as president, presided over the imposition of U.S. sanctions on the former military junta during his two-term in the White House from 1993 to 2001, visited the country for the first time.

Secondly, Clinton's visit coincided with the visit of European Union's delegation led by its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, which included European commissioners, members of the European Parliament, businessmen and members of civil society groups on a three-day visit (November 13-15) to the country.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Clinton's visit also coincided with a visit to the country by a delegation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC team, led by its Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, comprised of representatives from some Muslim-majority countries from Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti and Bangladesh.

Though the objective of the OIC mission was to assess the situation surrounding lingering tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, the arrival of the delegation was protested by Buddhists, including monks, who accused the OIC of being bias toward the Rohingya Muslims.

The Buddhist protesters accused the OIC of meddling in Myanmar's internal affairs and attempting to influence the amendment of the 1982 Citizenship Law which would pave the way for citizenship to Rohingya Muslims.

In October 2012, the Myanmar government refused permission for the OIC to establish a permanent office in the country after the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding for the Islamic organization to provide humanitarian aid to victims of the sectarian violence.

Though there is no immediate and easy solution, the Myanmar government must continue to explore all possible options to establish a peaceful and congenial relationship between Buddhists and Muslims.

Any long-term solution should address the unique problems of the Rohingya Muslims, where the gist of the matter lies. While the problems of other ethnic minorities in the country center on the question of autonomy or federalism, the Rohingyas are confronted with identity crisis.

The Myanmar government will have to address the Rohingya problems at some point, and it is a matter of either now or later. Though short-term measures such as humanitarian aid can address the immediate needs of the people, a political solution is necessary to resolve the problems.

By political solution it does not mean doing favor to one group over the other. A consociational democracy is one possible model that can be instituted. This model would offer a political platform for elites of diverse groups to work together for a common interest.

The simmering tensions will continue to persist as long as the people cannot embrace or respect each other's identity and culture. In this regard, both the Rakhine state government and the Union government must engage in reconciliation programs to bring together leaders from both sides.

If the Myanmar government needs the assistance of others, it must not procrastinate. Given the nature of the crisis and the international community's keen interest to see a successful democratic transition in the country, others will likely be willing to help resolve the conundrum.

Meanwhile, the OIC and other Muslim-majority countries should restrain from actions or initiatives that can fuel hatred and enmity between the two communities. As the Myanmar government granted the necessary permission to visit the violence-affected areas, the OIC must pursue a policy of equal treatment to all victims, regardless of race and religion.

Such impartial engagement can be important for building trust and understanding between Buddhists and Muslims. If mutual trust is established, it can possibly help the Myanmar government to plan a mutually acceptable solution. Mutual trust is also important for the OIC to develop good relations with the majority Buddhists population.

In the meantime, the international community must continue to extend all possible help for Myanmar to resolve its sectarian and political problems and for the emergence of a stable democracy.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. The article first appeared in The China Post newspaper.