World News

Violence Shakes Myanmar’s Rakhine State During Ethnic Rally

Posted January 17, 2018 5:34 p.m. EST

HONG KONG — Violence has again convulsed the western state of Rakhine in Myanmar, the same region where the United Nations has accused the country’s authorities of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority.

At least seven ethnic Rakhine protesters were killed by the police and 12 others were injured Tuesday evening during a march commemorating the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Rakhine, or Arakan, kingdom to an invading Burmese army.

The local government had canceled the march, in Mrauk-U, the ancient Arakan capital, but a rally of about 4,000 people gathered anyway, with marchers surrounding local government offices while placing a Rakhine flag on a national flagpole.

Protesters then attacked government offices, as well as motorbikes and cars parked nearby, according to Tin Maung Swe, the secretary of the Rakhine state government. He said the police had fired bullets into the crowd because “the people were trying to take the guns from the police.”

On Wednesday, an arrest warrant was issued for Dr. Aye Maung, a founder of the region’s largest ethnic Rakhine political party and an organizer of the thwarted anniversary rally, for a controversial speech he had given. Wai Hing Aung, a Rakhine social critic, was also detained the previous evening for giving a speech in another part of Rakhine. Both men have been implicated in various crimes, including unlawful association and fomenting public mischief.

“My brother has been arrested because his speech was highly critical of the government and the government thinks it might destroy the nation’s sovereignty,” said Thein Win, Wai Hing Aung’s brother. “But my brother is just a writer who also loves charity work.”

Aye Maung noted that his position in Parliament could give him immunity from any charges, but nevertheless called the legal action “hitting with an ax instead of with a pin.”

In his earlier speech, Aye Maung had made his feelings known about the ethnic Bamar, who make up Myanmar’s majority, including its civilian and military leadership. “Bamar people do not give equal chances to Rakhine people,” he said, according to an official recounting of the speech. “And they just push Rakhine people around as their slaves.”

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have also been angered by an announcement by the Myanmar government that it will accept back a limited number of Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar in recent months.

More than 655,000 Rohingya have fled western Myanmar since August, when an attack on police posts by Rohingya insurgents catalyzed a brutal campaign of rape, murder and arson by Myanmar’s army and associated ethnic Rakhine vigilantes. Hundreds of Rohingya villages were burned to the ground, according to satellite images collected by human rights groups.

The United States also uses the term ethnic cleansing to describe the military’s campaign against the Rohingya.

But ethnic Rakhine and Myanmar’s government accuse the Rohingya of immigrating illegally from Bangladesh, despite the Muslim group’s deep roots in the region.

Rakhine state, with its majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, has long been an ethnic tinderbox. In 2012, deadly sectarian clashes broke out between the two groups, mostly in or near the state capital, Sittwe. Most of the dead were Rohingya, and many of the Rohingya remain in internment camps set up by Myanmar’s government, while ethnic Rakhine affected by the 2012 violence were long ago allowed to integrate back into society. The violence in Rakhine state is not limited to tensions between the Rohingya and the Rakhine. For years before the Rohingya crisis exploded, Myanmar’s military battled the Arakan Army, a guerrilla group fighting for the rights of ethnic Rakhine. In the first half of 2016, the Arakan Army killed at least 300 Myanmar soldiers, according to a Myanmar military document.

Myanmar’s army has been fighting various ethnic armies for decades, mostly in areas rich with natural resource reserves. In Rakhine state, ethnic Rakhine bristle at the fact that their state has great natural-gas potential yet cannot manage a stable supply of electricity in the state capital, much less in rural areas. Ethnic Rakhine also are frustrated because their state ranks as the poorest in an already poor country.

The United Nations, one of the few international organizations to maintain long-term staffing in Rakhine, responded quickly to the riots. “We deplore the loss of life and injuries that have been reported,” it said in a statement. “We urge respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”