Sectarian rioting in western Burma has pitted the majority Buddhist population against a small Muslim minority group. Dozens of people on both sides have been killed, and countless homes destroyed. Thousands of refugees have taken flight.
This ethnic conflict has also had other, less conspicuous effects. Most importantly, it has triggered a dramatic realignment of political allegiances in the country. In a spectacular volte-face, a number of prominent members of Burma's pro-democracy opposition have begun calling for collaboration between civilians and the military in a bid to drive out what they claim are illegal Muslim immigrants who threaten the delicate fabric of Burmese society.
This recasting of the armed forces as protectors of the nation amounts to something of a coup for the quasi-military government that came to power a little over a year ago. Numbers of parliamentarians and exiled activists consider the Rohingya, an 800,000-strong Muslim group of South Asian descent who inhabit a pocket of Arakan state, to be a greater threat to the overall health of the country than a reinvigorated military. Yet this is the very same military that has spent decades persecuting the political opposition, forcing tens of thousands into prison or exile. It also happens to be one of the few institutions in Burma not touched by the reform program, as demonstrated by the army's continuing war against some of the country's restive ethnic minorities.
The government will see the flood of nationalist sentiment as a gift. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that officials may have had a role in whipping it up, as they did prior to the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the bouts of communal unrest involving Rohingya in 1978 and 1992. According to a Human Rights Watch report, security forces are actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during this most recent bout of violence. The current riots serve to distract from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers' strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government's standing in recent months. The conflict also puts Aung San Suu Kyi in an awkward position, forcing her to choose between the morally unassailable but politically unpalatable high ground (since defending the Rohingya likely entails losing a large number of votes), or a more populist stand that yields to widespread bigotry. In the event, she has chosen to split the difference, speaking vaguely of a need to reform Burma's citizenship law as a way of resolving the conflict.
Currently leading the anti-Rohingya charge is the Rakhine [Arakan] Nationalities Development Party, which came in second in the province in the last general election of November 2010. They released a statement last week warning that the population of the Rohingya -- whom they label "Bengali immigrants" -- has reached "very alarming" levels, and called for swift action to segregate them from Arakanese and eventually resettle them overseas. Party Head Dr. Aye Maung, who had welcomed Suu Kyi's win in parliamentary by-elections in April "as a great chance for all of us to change Burma to a democratic country," recently called for Burma "to be like Israel" -- apparently a reference to the oppressive controls placed on Palestinians to ‘protect' Israelis. He urged civilians to work with the government to craft a policy to "defend this region" against the Rohingya, who "will be repeatedly trespassing on our territory."
Aye Maung is not alone. Religious figures and veterans of the pro-democracy movement have played a firm hand in stirring tensions, using language reminiscent of that which accompanied the Nazi pogroms. Ko Ko Gyi, a dissident who spent years behind bars for his leading role in the 1988 student uprising against military rule, has referred to the Rohingya as terrorists, and asserted that they are not an ethnic Burmese group but rather "[infringe] on our sovereignty." Such comments provide succor to the likes of Htay Oo, the powerful agriculture minister and a leading political hardliner. He has mooted the re-launch of Operation Dragon King, which was deployed under the guise of an anti-mujahideen campaign in the late 1970s to round up, arrest, and torture thousands of Rohingya, eventually forcing more than 200,000 into Bangladesh.
Playing the "terrorism" card conveniently separates the Rohingya, whose armed struggle ended a decade ago, from the ethnic "freedom fighters" elsewhere in the country. Few have asked how this distinction was reached, although unsubstantiated claims that Rohingya had been recruited by Al Qaeda gathered steam in the wake of 9/11, helping to cast the group as a malevolent force without needing to showcase evidence.