Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state, is little more than a sleepy, dusty, overgrown village. Time appears to have stopped not long after the British left in 1948. Opposite the town’s golden zeydi, its Buddhist stupa, are the green-painted ruins of a mosque, but today there are few other obvious signs of last year’s violence. The great bulk of the town’s Muslim population has been banished to the outskirts: fishermen’s shacks and a sprawling camp where 7,000 men, women and children live under canvas.
As in other border areas, there is long-standing resentment at the dominant position of Burma’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans. The Arakanese nationalists who now control the state parliament look back nostalgically to the years before 1824 when the Burmans conquered the state, and dream of independence. During the half-century of military rule, the generals knew they were hated, and deliberately kept Arakan in a primitive state of development. Meanwhile the population of impoverished Rohingyas, many of whom came in during British rule, grew rapidly, threatening the numerical superiority of Buddhists.
This was the local variant of the game the junta played on other borders, keeping estranged local populations poor, anxious and paranoid about the future and the military’s intentions. Elsewhere the result was bitter civil war; here it was the twin fears, as one local nationalist put it to me, of Burmanisation and Islamisation, which resulted in frequent attacks on the Rohingyas over the years. In 1977, 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh; repulsed there, 12,000 of them starved to death.
Last year’s violence was particularly atrocious because Arakan state is at a very challenging moment. The elections in 2010 put 45 Arakanese nationalists in the state parliament, and the lifting of censorship allows them to publish any propaganda they choose, whipping up the chauvinistic feelings of a badly educated majority population which is just as poor as it was under military rule. With 2015’s general elections in view, the local nationalists and the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are in a race to harness local chauvinistic emotion. The Rohingyas are the fall guys.
The West needs to maintain pressure on Thein Sein to seek an inclusive solution. But his vice-president Sai Mauk Kham probably hit the nail on the head when he said: “Only when the socio-economic life of both sides [has] improved can the two societies stay together.”