Why is western Myanmar burning?

Why is western Myanmar burning?

Western Myanmar is burning. Why is it burning? One initial incident, of course: On May 28, a 26-year-old Rakhine woman called Thida Htwe was raped and murdered, allegedly by three young Rohingya Muslim men, in mainly Buddhist Rakhine state.

Why is it burning?

Revenge, of course: On June 3, six days later, a lynch mob of 300 Buddhist Rakhine people stopped a bus, dragged out 10 Muslim pilgrims and beat them to death. The victims, who were not Rohingya, were on the way back to their homes in Yangon.

Why is it burning?

Media and social media, of course: Some internet users insensitively posted pictures of the initial slaughter on their Facebook accounts. These spread quickly and stirred other users to share emotional responses.

A weekly Myanmar journal, Snapshot, based in Yangon, even published a picture of Thida Htwe's corpse with her throat slit. Later, the journal was suspended indefinitely by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Information Ministry, which charged the publication with printing inflammatory coverage.

Why is it burning?

Another round of vengeance, of course: On June 8, more than 1,000 angry Muslim Rohingya in Maungdaw township, by the Bangladeshi border, swept through 22 predominantly Buddhist villages after their Friday prayers, attacking residents and burning houses. According to official figures, seven people were killed, 17 people seriously injured and around 500 houses and shops destroyed.

It was at this point when the Rakhine situation truly became ablaze. The authorities issued a curfew yet state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar said in its coverage the next day that more than 1,000 "terrorists" rioted after dark.

Why is it burning?

Hate speak, of course: On June 5, state-run Burmese newspapers Kyemon and Myanmar Ahlin used the derogatory term kalar while referring to Muslims in their reports of the Rakhine violence. The next day, a correction was made after the director-general of the government's Information and Public Relations Department was criticised on Facebook. He also urged people not to use similar terms in order to avoid inflaming the conflict further.

The word "terrorist" has also become popular amid more traditional foul language. "Recent events in western Burma have created a hurricane of hate in the online sphere," Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University, was quoted as saying.

Why is it burning?

Rakhine's history itself, of course: Conflict in the state goes back as far as anyone cares to look. The Rohingya say their origins can be traced back to the 8th century when the first Arabian Muslims arrived in Rakhine state as traders, although some historians deny there is any connection between early Arabs and the Rohingya. By contrast, the Rakhine people say that the term Rohingya did not exist until the 1950s. According to Burmese historian Maung Maung, the word Rohingya cannot be found in the 1824 census conducted by the British.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Rakhine was an independent principality and home to both Buddhists and Muslims. After the British waged the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26 in lower Burma, including Rakhine state, tens of thousands of immigrants from British India were brought in to work in the local paddy fields.

There were several riots at the time between Rakhine people and Rohingya, who were then referred to as Bengalis. One of the biggest riots in 1942 left several thousand Muslims as well as 20,000 Rakhine people dead. This ugly history does not seem to have ended.

Why is it burning?

Lack of the rule of law, of course: Within one week, 50 people have been killed, 54 other people injured, more than 2,200 houses burnt down and around 31,000 people displaced.

The rule of law is an issue that Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi frequently emphasises. "Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue," Mrs Suu Kyi said on her current trip to Europe. "The present situation will have to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity, and we need the cooperation of all people concerned to rebuild the peace that we want for our country."

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy Publishing Group. He can be reached through kyawzwa@irrawaddy.org.

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