In Rakhine, the need for integration

Without measures aimed at improving trust there is little preventing return of the violence that swept through the state in 2012.

IN SOME ways the news that emerged from Sittwe this month, of a group of Muslim men coming under attack by what has been described as a “mob” of ethnic Rakhine, leaving one dead, and several others hospitalized, had an element of inevitability about it.

Since violence swept through the state in 2012, few concrete measures have been taken by successive governments to address one of the biggest obstacles to what is already an incredibly complex issue: distrust between communities.

That distrust has only heightened since October, when Islamic militants attacked police outposts, and spread a fear that is still palpable throughout the state today. Subsequent attacks since then have only reinforced concerns held by many ethnic Rakhine – and propagated by hardliners – that the Rohingya are intent on taking control of the beleaguered state.

When Frontier visited Sittwe in early June and spoke with about a dozen Rakhine nationals, fear and distrust of the Muslim community was clear. Most of those we spoke to – in fact, all bar a handful, who actively work to improve trust between the groups – said they could not foresee a time in the future when the two communities live peacefully side by side again.

Given that the tensions remain and are relatively well known, it is worth asking why the Muslim men who came under attack were offered such poor protection by the police. According to a report by Reuters, when the men went to buy a boat, the only escort they were offered was an unarmed junior police officer who fled as soon as the violence started.

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Security forces were accused of failing to take action during the many bouts of inter-communal violence that have afflicted Myanmar since 2012. This latest incident once again draws attention to the need for effective training of police and other security forces, not only in Rakhine but right across the country.

It also highlights why it is so important that a systematic approach is put in place to try and improve trust between the two communities in Rakhine State. Ever since the 2012 violence, there has been little space for representatives from either community to interact and therefore develop trust.

Citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services are absolutely essential for the state’s Muslim population, but without measures aimed at improving trust there is little preventing return of the violence that swept through the state in 2012.

As highlighted in the interim recommendations issued by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, published in March, there are potential barriers to improving dialogue, including deep-rooted fears and active resistance from within both communities. Another factor is restrictions on movement, which in some cases make it impossible for the communities to interact. 

It will certainly not be an easy task, but there is some space available to improve trust.

Their voices are relatively quiet, but within both communities there are moderates who for many years have been calling for peace. Additionally, there is a small group of civil society actors on the ground actively working to try and help build trust. Those moderate voices must be heightened so that their message becomes the new “normal” in conversations related to the issue, and the hate speech that has so often come to dominate the narrative is eventually drowned out.

It will also be crucial to focus on the youth from both communities. From both sides will be a generation of young people who, before 2012, would have had friends from the other community. Given the right platform, these young people can also help to build a more positive narrative that – one day – may lead to an improvement in trust between the communities.

This editorial originally appeared in the July 13 issue of Frontier. 

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