Life must be precarious for ‘stateless’ people anywhere. The Rohingyas living in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have known this for long. They have little protection from the State, which treats them as illegal settlers and denies them citizen rights. Worse, they are not even accepted as ‘refugees’ in neighbouring Bangladesh, where they try to flee every time violence erupts in the area. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Myanmar government failed completely to prevent the violence that engulfed the Rakhine state last month. Sectarian tension between the Rohingyas, who are Muslim, and their Buddhist neighbours had been simmering in the area since another outbreak of such violence there last June. Only a lack of political will, if not connivance, on the part of the authorities explains the failure of the State. The Rohingyas see their persecution in religious terms. This is largely aimed at drawing the attention of Muslim communities elsewhere to their plight. But the battles over land and other resources in the poverty-stricken area have much to do with the violence. Whatever the reasons, Myanmar cannot afford to let a mob rule prevail in the area.
The violence in the Rakhine state has serious consequences for Myanmar and some other countries in the region. It raises disturbing questions about the ability of the new regime in Naypyidaw to establish the rule of law in all parts of the country. The two recent waves of violence in the Rakhine state coincided with the first phase of Myanmar’s transition to democratic rule. The international community has a stake in the success of the transition. It is only now that Myanmar is opening up to the world after four decades of international isolation. Foreign governments, and investors, would like to be reassured that the new regime’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law is authentic. Myanmar’s large oil and gas reserves have attracted many foreign investors since the military partially handed over power to an elected parliament. Myanmar’s economic promise may not materialize if it fails to stop sectarian violence. There is also the danger of the Rohingyas starting a bloody insurrection with the help of foreign extremist groups. Violence in Myanmar could pose a serious threat to the region’s security and economic interests.