Skip to main content

An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe June 10, 2012. Northwest Myanmar was tense on Monday after sectarian violence engulfed its largest city at the weekend, with Reuters witnessing rival mobs of Muslims and Buddhists torching houses and police firing into the air to disperse crowds. Picture taken June 10, 2012.Staff/Reuters

The Globe and Mail spoke to three experts on the outbreak of communal violence between the Muslim Rohingya minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority in Myanmar's Arakan state, and its political consequences. They are Ashin Kovida, a senior monk at the Burma Buddhist Association of Ontario; Paul Copeland, an advisory board member of the Canadian Friends of Burma; and Nur Hasim, chairperson of the Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization.

How did the recent violence in Arakan state start?

Ashin Kovida: Three Rohingya men raped and killed a Rakhine [Buddhist] woman. Rohingya Muslims became upset and began attacking Rakhine Buddhists after the men were arrested. The [Arakanese Buddhists] Rakhine were only defending themselves. They couldn't do anything else.

Paul Copeland: All the reports I see say it started from Rohingya men raping a [Buddhist] Rakhine woman, and I think the men were killed by the Rakhine.

Nur Hasim: A Rakhine women was raped and killed, but it is unknown who did it. Two Rakhine men and one Rohingya man were arrested, and the Rohingya was killed in custody by police. The Rakhine accused Rohingya men of the crime and the next day a leaflet was released encouraging the Rakhine to kill Rohingyas in retaliation. In June, a bus carrying Muslims from Rangoon to Arakan state was attacked by 300 Rakhine youth. They were inhumanely beaten and eight were killed on the spot.

There are reports that photos of Rakhine Buddhists killing Rohingya Muslims are fake or being misrepresented. Who's doctoring or misrepresenting these photos?

Ashin Kovida: India has asked the Pakistani government to stop extremist groups in Pakistan from making fake photos and the Pakistani media to stop showing them. We know they are fake because we've seen the original photos and know that they've been photoshopped. The photos are coming from Pakistan and the Middle East.

Paul Copeland: The photos are bullshit. They are of Buddhist monks praying over hundreds of earthquake victims in Tibet, but the photos are being portrayed as Buddhist monks standing over the bodies of dead Muslims in Arakan state. There are reports that these photos are coming from groups in Pakistan, but it's hard to tell. Unfortunately, many Muslim countries have picked up on this rather than addressing what's really going on, which is the long mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Nur Hasim: There are fake photos, but they are being posted on the Internet by the [Myanmar] government and the Rakhine people. Then they are saying that other Muslims are posting these photos. They are confusing the international community. I didn't hear anything about Pakistani terrorist groups posting the photos. And the government is trying to propagate that the real photos of Rohingya Muslims being killed are fake, too.

Why would anyone want to doctor or misrepresent photos of the situation in Myanmar?

Ashin Kovida: I don't know. Maybe Muslims want to make unrest in Myanmar and claim Burmese land as their land. They want to bring shariah maybe. But they should go back to their country if they want that. Myanmar is changing fast, becoming a democracy, and maybe some people don't want to see this happen.

Paul Copeland: Some groups always want to exaggerate these kinds of situations for their own benefit. There are misleading accounts of how many people have been killed and the extent of the violence. The Rohingya form the majority population in Arakan state and there are suggestions that they want an independent Arakan state to be made into an Islamic state. But I doubt that this is a mainstream opinion among Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.

Nur Hasim: The Rohingya are asking for Burmese citizenship. Why would we ask for citizenship if we want independence? We don't control anything so how can we create an Islamic state?

Are the Rohingya mistreated in Myanmar?

Ashin Kovida: I can't say. They are illegal immigrants. The problem of the Rohingya is from the 1950s. And during military rule corrupt immigration officials took bribes to let the Rohingya into the country.

Paul Copeland: The Rohingya have been mistreated in Myanmar for a very long time. The Rohingya, who have been in Myanmar for close to 200 years, don't have citizenship and I understand they're not allowed to go to professional schools after high school. They're also restricted to having only two children.

Nur Hasim: There are 1.5 million Rohingya in Arakan state and we have been there for close to nine centuries. We can't marry without permission or have children. We can't travel around the country. There is no freedom of movement or democratic rights for the Rohingya.

Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has received criticism for not speaking out forcefully against the atrocities committed in Arakan state. Why has she been largely silent on this issue?

Ashin Kovida: This is a very sensitive issue for her. I think she should keep silent.

Paul Copeland: Her initial statements about the need for the rule of law and a clear immigration law were fine, but she didn't focus on the historical mistreatment of the Rohingya. It's clear that she's angling to get support for the 2015 election and any mention of the Rohingya, who are unpopular in Myanmar, could hurt those chances.

Nur Hasim: It's a very sad situation. The Rohingya support the National League for Democracy [Suu Kyi's party] and voted for her and the party in 1990. Rohingya all over the world protested against her house arrest. We very much supported her and now when the Rohingya need her help, she doesn't support us. If Suu Kyi supports the Rohingya, she would get less votes in the 2015 election, but she has a responsibility to speak out for us.

What's the solution to this conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists?

Ashin Kovida: I don't know what the solution is. We've never had a problem like this before. Buddhists, Muslims and Christians have lived peacefully in Myanmar for a long time.

Paul Copeland: The Rohingya should be given citizenship and there has to be some sort of mediation to diffuse the conflict between the two communities.

Nur Hasim: The problem is the 1982 Citizenship Act, which does not recognize the Rohingya as an official minority group in Myanmar. The act needs to be repealed, and we need to be recognized so that we can be protected by the government.