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Why Western Burma is Burning

Late last month, violence exploded in western Burma for the second time this year. The government reported over 80 people killed 4,600 houses burned, and more than 22,000 people displaced, numbers that are almost certainly underestimated. This outburst is patterned on a similar orgy of violence in June, when scores of Rohingya Muslims were killed and tens of thousands fled elsewhere in Burma or to Bangladesh.

Why are the Rohingya, a group of Bengali Muslims who number about 800,000, and their Burmese neighbors fighting each other like this? The Economist has a very useful backgrounder:

Both sides in this dispute have long memories. For most Rakhines, Rohingyas do not really exist. They say the term was coined in 1951 to describe Bengali settlers who had been brought in by the British Raj. Many more followed, they say, as illegal immigrants. So for Rakhines, the struggle, as one tract puts it, is “about an invasion of Bengali land-grabbers”. The north of the state, near the Bangladeshi border, is already more than 90% Muslim, despite a government rule limiting Muslims to two children.

Many Rakhines also resent the central government, dominated by ethnic Burmans. They see themselves as victims of serial invasions: by the Burmans in 1784, by the British in the 1820s and by Bengalis ever since. That most of the Bengali immigrants are Muslims adds religious tension. In Sittwe Aung Kyaw Zan, a writer, says Rakhines are “sandwiched between Burmanisation and Islamisation”. Shwe Maung, of a Rakhine political party, says “they are trying to Islamise us through their terrible birth rate.”

It’s a ugly situation. The displaced Rohingyas are jammed into refugee camps along Burma’s western coast, unable to find much work, food, or medical care. So far, Burma’s political reforms seem to have not done much for social equality and safety for minorities. As the Economist somberly notes, “The need to contain ethnic strife and separatism was long used to justify the army’s 50-year dictatorship. Some must mourn its passing.”

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