13 Jul A sectarian affair, or more?

Written by K Yhome Published in Contributor Read 16109 times

If Sunday’s Bodh Gaya blasts were indeed a fallout of the Rohingya issue, it’s high time New Delhi engaged Myanmar and Bangladesh diplomatically to ensure that Indian territory does not become a battleground

The probe into the recent Bodh Gaya blasts that injured two monks are currently underway and there is yet no definitive conclusion on whether the bombings have any link to the sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. Even so, given the potential regional implications of Myanmar’s communal conflicts since violence first erupted in a year ago, links of the bombings were made to the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar but with little explanation on what the sectarian violence in Myanmar is about.

Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, has been witnessing one of the worst spells of sectarian violence in its recent history. What began as a localised sectarian riot in June 2012 in the coastal state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) bordering Bangladesh to its north has now become a nationwide communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. According to government census, Islam is practiced by about 5 per cent (mostly Sunni) and about 89 per cent follow Buddihism, predominantly of the Theravada tradition out of the nearly 60 million population of the country.

A Bengali-speaking community, who called themselves Rohingyas, in the Rakhine State claim they are from Myanmar. However, this claim is not recognised by the Myanmar regime, dominated by the majority Burman who are predominantly Buddhist and hence Rohingyas are not in the 135 list of ethnic groups of Myanmar. The Myanmar regime regards the Rohingyas as “immigrants” from Bangladesh and are deprived of citizenship rights and subjected to various repressive measures.

Rakhine State is the epicentre of the current sectarian riots between the majority ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists, and the minority Rohingyas, who are Muslims. The situation continues to remain tense due to the growing anti-Muslim campaigns led by radical Buddhist elements in different parts of the country. The death casualties are now in hundreds and several thousands have been fleeing the country to neighbouring countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

The Rohingyas are casualty of three historical circumstances that continue to shape notions of nationalism and national identity. Like other countries in the region, the communal issue in Myanmar is rooted in history. The emergence of new nation-states; the narrowly defined national identity; and lack of concerted efforts on the part of Myanmar and Bangladesh to find a resolution to the long-standing issue have together created what is known as the Rohingya issue. In the 1820s, the Burmese ceded the Arakan coast strip to British India that allowed people from the subcontinent to move into the area. Post-independence period saw creation of new borders but given the porous nature of borders, the movement of people cross-borders continued.

The newly created nation-states in the mid-twentieth century in the region, the task of nation-building based on narrowly defined “national identity” only complicated the situation. In the case of Myanmar, national identity was based on the majoritarian Buddhist culture and the Muslim Rohingyas were seen as opposed to the Buddhist-based identity. Although one can appreciate Dhaka’s position that the Rohingyas are Myanmar citizens and therefore an internal matter of the country, its hand-off policy towards the issue has not helped matters. Dhaka could taken up the matter with Myanmar rather than ignoring it to become a bigger and more complex issue that has returned around to affects its own well-being.

With this unsettled history, the initiation of political reforms in 2010 in Myanmar has provided space for different communities to vent their grievances against each other. As the country heralds into a new phase of political freedom, there is a strong nationalist wave led by the rightwing Buddhist monks targeting the Rohingyas, in particular, and Muslims in general, as a “threat” to the country’s national identity, akin to the post-independence years.

The rise of rightwing Buddhist forces with their anti-Muslim campaigns and the Myanmar government’s inability to curb violence have invited criticism from the international media. Importantly, the unending communal violence threatens the country’s future course of political reconciliation which is critical for the establishment of an inclusive system as the democratisation process stands at the crossroads. The Myanmar government needs to demonstrate that it is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of every person, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.

As the Rohingya question in Myanmar hangs in a limbo, there are other serious and immediate concerns emanating from this conundrum. Reports about radical groups among the Rohingyas establishing links with global terror groups sympathetic to the cause are plenty in the recent months. Initial reports on the Bodh Gaya blasts have suggested that a Pakistani-based terror group could be involved. Earlier, the two men were arrested in Jakarta who had tried to target Myanmar’s embassy. This point to the fact that the issue is creating radical and desperate groups to counter the rightwing Buddhist forces in Myanmar.

The likelihood of these terror links may grow with unabated violence and sections in both sides adopting extreme communal positions. In this context, sharing of information on nexus between radical groups remains critical for security and stability of the region. The agreement to share information about the Bodh Gaya blasts between India and Myanmar during the recent Foreign Office Consultation meeting needs to be viewed from this perspective and not Delhi’s connivance with Myanmar as alleged by some radical groups.

Inside Myanmar, the need of the hour is for moderate Buddhist monks to get heard. Unlike the radical Buddhist movement led by hardliner monks, such as Wirathu, who advocates anti-Islam campaigns, there are also monks who oppose the movement. Gambira, who became renowned for spearheading the 2007 uprising against the military regime, is one such moderate voice. As Buddhist-Muslim tension rises, the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, many of whom follow Christianity as their religion, would be watching with a sense of wariness as the new Buddhist nationalist wave will have long-term repercussions on its relations with the majority Buddhist community.

It is premature to surmise that the Bodh Gaya bombings signal the beginning of Buddhist rightwing versus radical Muslim fundamentalist groups in South Asia. Hence, the likely direction of the phenomenon remains unclear, though the incident is perhaps the first sign of a new anti-Buddhist campaign in the region. Whether the Bodh Gaya bombings are found to be linked to Myanmar’s sectarian violence or not, the perpetual communal tension in Myanmar is doing no good for the country’s future. An early resolution to the issue is in the interest of the country and the region at large.

Multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic diversities are the cornerstone of every society in South and Southeast Asian nations. Often ethnic and religious complexities have manifested themselves into dangerous proportion with strong regional security implications. Several of Myanmar’s neighbours have been struggling with radicalisation and they could share their experiences with Myanmar in dealing with such phenomenon, but Myanmar needs to take upon itself the responsibility of finding a lasting resolution to the sectarian violence sooner than later.

(K Yhome is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

This article first appeared in The Pioneer  on July 13, 2013.