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The Disunion of Myanmar

MAUNGDAW, Myanmar — At the sight of several Rohingyas collecting firewood and bringing cattle to pasture, the driver who was taking me to Maungdaw, a small town near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, screamed out that they should all be kicked out of the country or the recent bout of sectarian violence opposing them to the Rakhines would never end.

This is the kind of language I heard often from Rakhines, a Buddhist group of about two million people, regarding Rohingyas, a Muslim minority of about 800,000, during a visit to Rakhine State earlier this month. It was my first trip to this westernmost area of Myanmar, even though my mother is a proud Rakhine — so proud, in fact, that she still bemoans her people’s loss of their coastal kingdom to the rulers of central Burma over two centuries ago.

When I was a child, she was given to saying, “I would never, as a Rakhine, drink water from a Muslim house.” I knew this comment expressed long-simmering tensions between her Buddhist people and the Muslim Rohingyas, who are viewed with suspicion partly because of their conservative mores. I hadn’t appreciated, however, that this common prejudice was a harbinger of violence to come.

But then on June 8, a group of Rohingyas in Maungdaw burned down houses owned by Rakhines in retaliation for the killing by a mob of Rakhines of 10 Muslim leaders from Yangon — that killing in turn was retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine girl by several Rohingya men. The violence then spread to the regional capital, Sittwe, forcing many Rohingyas to flee their homes.

Members of both communities say the outburst in Maungdaw could have been stopped early if security forces had intervened. Instead, I was told, they stood by.

Worse, the government has been exploiting the situation: rather than intervene to ease communal tensions and finally clarify the murky legal status of Rohingyas, it is further stigmatizing them in order to ingratiate itself with the majority.

On my visit, the scars of violence were vivid: burned-out houses, markets, mosques and temples, and desperate refugees. An eerie silence reigned in Maungdaw, with its closed schools and shops. Both sides feared that deadly clashes would recur, despite the nightly curfew. In Rathedaung township, near Maungdaw, I saw a big poster announcing classes in kando martial arts “open to all nationalistic Rakhine men and women.”

“It is entirely impossible for us to be able to co-exist with Bengali Muslims again. This is a national cause,” said San Kyaw Hla, a 65-year-old Rakhine resident of Maungdaw. He was referring to the Rohingyas as Bengalis to mean that they were illegal aliens from Bangladesh.

Such is the prejudice the Rohingyas have long faced: many have been denied Burmese citizenship and are stateless. They are not even considered to belong to a distinct Burmese ethnic group, even though some of their ancestors first moved to Burma generations ago.

An elderly Rohingya man I met in Maungdaw — he did not want to be identified — explained how he had tried to fit in over the years. Trained at the Central Institute of Political Science soon after Myanmar’s independence, he had worked as a regional official and an organizer of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. But today he cannot renew his old national ID card and is forbidden from traveling, even within Rakhine State.

Rohingyas like him shouldn’t expect much help from the Burmese government. It has announced that it will place any “illegal” Rohingyas — meaning, in its view, any Bengalis who settled in Myanmar after independence in 1948 — in detention camps to be run by the U.N.’s refugee agency or send them away to other countries.

This position has triggered an outpouring of support for the government among Rakhines, despite their long-standing animosity toward Burmese-majority rule and the fact that historically Rakhine State has received little help from the central government. Rakhines now largely embrace President U Thein Sein as a defender of their state and a real Buddhist, while resenting the democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has taken no clear stand in the conflict.

By marginalizing the Rohingyas, an especially disfavored minority, the government is catering to the Rakhines, as well as its base among the Burmese majority — and all without giving them any more political and economic rights.