Nov 7, 2012

Myanmar - Is radical Islamic idea forming in Myanmar?

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This is a response to Irrawaddy magazine's article, "Fresh Arakan (Rakhine) Strife Bad Omen for Reform".

Although I am not a veteran analyst, I just wanted to point out some facts - I thought - you might have missed.

You stated that the fresh violence in Rakhine State will have serious implications for Myanmar and regional stability if it does not come to a stop immediately. Moreover, the international community must not stay passive otherwise Myanmar’s fragile democratic transition will face a grim setback.

But what really have motivated this current phase of violence? In your article, you suggested that it was not motivated by ethnic or religious factors. You quoted Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan saying (it was) a political, democratic, human rights and constitutional issue. You hinted that a group of people has been working to instigate the violence for several months and blamed some democratic figures for failing to take immediate actions. You stated two theories: hardliner factions in the ruling USDP were behind the violence in order to undermine the President’s reform process, and the strife is intended to allow the Burmese armed forces to return to the spotlight.

What did you forget? Myanmar is located in a strategic location. China is seeking a way out to the Indian Ocean, while the US wants a partner to balance China. What is more, has Myanmar attracted some radical Islamic ideas? Just before the riots in Rakhine State, Muslim insurgents were given a full autonomy opportunity in a milestone agreement with Manila over Mindanao in the Philippines. The Muslim uprisings in Thailand and Bangladesh have also concurred. All these could not be just coincidences.

After the Arab Spring, Muslim radicals have a chance to switch their strategies. As Minn Ko Naing, a prominent 88-generation student and well-known democratic activist, said they would probably be hunting for easier targets. They might want to take chances on weaker countries, which are focuses of the US, like Myanmar. In fact, our country is barely freed from dictatorship. Can I say the extremists are testing our strength when we are burdened with democratic reforms? A good political analyst cannot deny this possibility.

The Rakhine riots in June occurred during the UN General Assembly. Then, the riots won attention from the international community. President Thein Sein's government, trying to get credible recognition from the global community, had to accept the pressure from the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and allowed Tomas Quintana, the UN's special envoy to Myanmar, to visit the riot areas. But Myanmar people protested against the opening of OIC offices in the country, which was seen as a prelude to reignite the riots.

The second round of riots coincides with the Asean Summit. Did Asean bring the issue to forefront? (There are some examples among Middle East countries, which always pointed out the Israel-Palestine crisis just to cover other matters such as Iran’s nuclear programmes.) Asean could not view the Rakhine issue as a regional problem. There are more important matters to be addressed. There is another thing to think about: the riots recommencing in Kyaukpyu - which is a vital part to the gas pipeline project scheduled to be operational in 2013.

What do you think about it? I cannot view these events as coincidences. Is a group of Muslim extremists igniting extremism to win sovereignty - as is the case of the Philippines? Most of Myanmar people do not accept Bengalis as an ethnicity. However, that does not deny giving them nationality. If they are fluent in Myanmar language skills, and are officially registered as citizens, they can get the nationality. And the others who have lived over generations and have good language skills, can be given secondary citizenship. Sending them to a third country rings a hollow. They have to be integrated into the community. They must be persuaded to coexist with Rakhine residents as before. Who destroyed this coexistence?

It needs to be considered thoroughly: Bengalis cannot be put into refugee camps as we do not want creating religious extremists. It is almost impossible to send them back to their country or to a third country. Separating them from other ethnics would cause problems at the time of implementing federal ideas. As secondary citizens, they cannot get the vote or cannot win a seat in parliament. So needs to be done is to integrate them into the society. Economical and educational sectors need to be improved. Problems can be lessen if the areas are more developed and locals become more educated. However, they have to wait for at least two generations to get the vote. Still, Bengalis are the burden not only in the Rakhine state, but also for the locals. Once they are officially registered as citizens, they can go freely throughout the country and enjoy the rights of a citizen.

The occurrences in Rakhine State are a national issue, not international. The problems should be solved by speeding up development projects to result in peaceful solutions. The more developed the area is and the more the people are informed, the less likely such conflicts will emerge.

I think the leaders should take advice from different perspectives. There are examples in history. The riots first happened only at the Bengali majority places in June. Ironically, Bengalis started the recent riots in Bengali minority places. Do they want to say that they are being oppressed by the Rakhine? It has not been long since the word Rohingya emerged, but they are now calling for the recognition like in the Philippines. Such demand is totally unacceptable. Rohingya have not existed in Myanmar and the history proves this.

This crisis highlights the current political changes, geo-politics and political circumstances in Myanmar. The stance of Western countries can also be doubted. Can you say they are not diverting the strong Muslim sentiments against Christianity? What if they have that kind of ideas? Even BBC described Rakhine State as Rohingya State. Therefore, just blaming the government is not right. We should have a deeper insight.

This issue did not spring from poor governance as Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democratic icon, has pointed out. I believe thinking only about governance is not fair. International political current, Myanmar’s geo-politics and circumstances should be included.

I prefer not to view these riots as a political and governmental scandal. In fact, this crisis cannot be solved by the government alone. People need to see the puppet master. Myanmar must not be dominated by the US, China or religious extremists. Is Irrawaddy neglecting the fact or failed to conclude it? Or fail to outwit the foreign media?

Zwell Waian

Eleven Media Group

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