Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been in the news this year for its progress in democratization. Since 1989, the Southeast Asian nation of 60 million has been ruled by a military junta. The military crushed popular protests in 1988 and refused to honor the results of elections held two years later.

Recognized for her charisma and courage worldwide, Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the movement against the oppressive military rule in Myanmar and is the Nobel Peace Laureate of 1991. The junta had contained her to house arrest for 20 years before freeing her in November 2010.

Earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, were allowed to compete in parliamentary elections. The latest round of elections came under intense international observation and was seen as a legitimate sign of liberalization of Myanmar’s military rule.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won almost all of the parliamentary seats up for election and thus became the official leader of the opposition.

Beginning in June, however, ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists in the country has cast a dark shadow over Myanmar’s political reforms. In the northern state of Rakhine, which shares an international border with Bangladesh, the fighting between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has displaced almost 100,000 people in the last four months.

Violence began in the aftermath of the raping and murder of a Buddhist woman in May by a group of Muslim men. The Buddhists took revenge for the murder, attacking buses carrying Muslims and burning down houses. Many refugees attempted to flee to Bangladesh, which sealed its border in June on the claim that it already had hundreds of thousands of refugees in its territory.

After a summer of relative calm, violence broke out again about two weeks ago, triggering yet another flow of Rohingya refugees numbering at least 22,000. Most of the refugees went to Thechaung camp, which is already filled with people displaced from the first bout of violence in June. Others took refuge on boats, islands and hilltops. According to the Myanmar government, 112 people have been killed in the latest round of violence.

The U.N. and non-governmental humanitarian organizations have been closely following the situation. They say that nearly 5,000 homes have been destroyed and more than 66,000 people have been given food supplies by the U.N. World Food Programme.

“The situation is certainly very grave and we are working with the government to provide urgent aid to these people,” said Ashok Nigam, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.

The Rohingya Muslims are essentially a stateless group. They are not considered Burmese citizens by the government and are seen by the regime and the general public as invaders from Bangladesh who have no right to reside on Burmese land. On the other hand, Bangladesh also refuses to recognize the group as national citizens.

Night curfews have been put in place by the government in an attempt to curb the violence. The country’s president, Thein Sein, also called for more security in the region. Back in August, Sein created a commission to examine solutions to the ethnic tensions in the Rakhine state.

Still, human rights groups are pushing both Myanmar and Bangladesh to do more to help refugees and broker a peace settlement between the Buddhists and Muslims. So far, Aung San Suu Kyi has largely remained out of the spotlight on the issue.