A long-festering wound in Myanmar has burst and if not attended to swiftly could pose a threat to the nascent process of political reform in that country. Decades of racial and religious animosity between the Buddhist community and Rohingyas in Rakhine, formerly Arakan, on the country's western coast, erupted in serious clashes that left at least 20 people dead over the past week. The trigger for the violence was the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, and it has led to ‘retaliatory' killings and calls among the Rakhine Buddhist community for the expulsion of the Rohingyas from Myanmar. The Rohingya Muslims have for centuries lived in Rakhine, where their number is estimated at 750,000. But Myanmar has denied them citizenship, and treats them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. During the long years of military rule in Myanmar, thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh fearing persecution. Dhaka does not recognise them as its own either. Indeed, not wanting any “transboundary spillover” from the present round of violence, Bangladesh has turned away hundreds of stateless Rohingyas trying to flee to its shores in boatloads over the weekend. For India, the violence is of particular concern as it is in an area that is key to its plan to build connectivity with Myanmar and the rest of South-East Asia.
The troubles in Rakhine are a challenge to the gradual process of national reconciliation that President Thein Sein has set in motion since 2010. The process has been two-fold: democratic reforms in partnership with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement; and, peace-building with the many ethnic insurgencies on the country's borders with India, China and Thailand. In fact, the entire process is really one of delayed nation-building. But it would remain incomplete without the inclusion of the Rohingyas. The danger is that sections of the military that are unconvinced about the need for reforms may use the Rakhine incidents to advocate a roll-back. Rakhine has been placed under emergency laws already. Beyond the restoration of law and order, Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, which has a big stake in the reforms, must take the lead in pushing the demand for addressing the issues that underlie the problems in Rakhine. Ms Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy kept away from the Rohingya cause all these years, perhaps because of concerns that it might not appeal to the majority Buddhist population. But that is no longer an option for a political party that is now seen as playing an important role in shaping a new Myanmar.