The spotlight has returned to the ethnic issue in Rakhine State, where over 100,000 Muslims have been displaced and the anti-Muslim sentiment gains new momentum.
During her tour on January 10-16, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, stopped at Sittwe, the capital city of the state, where many camps for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are located. Her visit as well the UN resolution that Myanmar give citizenship to “Rohingya” sparked new Buddhist sentiments fanned by incendiary rhetoric by right-wing nationalists like Mandalay-based monk Wirathu.
Wirathu’s offensive remarks against Yanghee Lee drew a counter-attack from United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.
"It is intolerable for UN special rapporteurs to be treated in this way, and I call on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to unequivocally condemn all forms of incitement to hatred including this abhorrent public personal attack against a UNappointed expert," Zeid said.
In 2012, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists launched attacks against the minorities. About 200 minority Muslims - identifying themselves as Rohingya but seen as "Bengalis" by local Rakhines and also by the Myanmar government - were killed, and another 140,000 driven from their homes. The displaced Muslims, who lost everything and, in many cases, saw family and friends hacked and burned to death in 2012, are confined to the camps. Community ties are in shreds, with those remaining in town avoiding Rakhine neighbourhoods, and vice-versa.
Every month, hundreds of Rohingya risk life and limb to flee across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in boats run by people smugglers to Malaysia, often via Thailand.
Completing her four-day visit to the state on January 19, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne C. Richard urged officials and others in Rakhine State to minimise loss of life and human suffering associated with communal tensions between Rakhine’s ethnic and religious communities, mitigate the risks of further violence, and lay the groundwork for peace and communal reconciliation. She also urged the government and community leaders to help accomplish these goals by providing protection and security for all of Rakhine’s residents, allowing greater freedom of movement, ensuring unimpeded humanitarian access and assistance to those in need, providing equal access to citizenship for eligible Rohingya, and promoting trust between communities.
“The current situation in Rakhine State benefits no one. We engaged with both communities and both Muslims and Buddhists are disadvantaged by the poverty, restrictions, and lack of rights in their society,” she said in a statement.
The condition looked grim, but Major-General Maung Maung Ohn guarantees security in the state.
"The number of police has been reinforced. In addition, wherever necessary, I plan to get reinforcements from the army," he told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview at his office in the state capital Sittwe.
"At this point of time, I can guarantee security," said the 54- year-old hand-picked for the job about eight months ago. His predecessor Hla Maung Tin was seen as siding with local Rakhine activists and creating difficulties for humanitarian aid efforts to help the stricken minority Muslims.
Aside from inter-communal violence, Rakhines were also attacked by the Rohingya in the state's north, where Muslims form the majority in some areas. But the Rohingya bore the brunt in the south.
The interview took place days after Yanghee Lee commended his efforts after visiting the IDP camps. But she said Rakhine state was still in crisis and called for more humanitarian access and speedy resettlement of the IDPs.
Asked to respond, he said: "I am very much aware of the fact that as chief minister, I am totally responsible for the humanitarian affairs of the communities."
He said he would continue with humanitarian assistance and "uphold the human rights of the IDPs in line with international standards and UN principles".
Global aid groups had full access to camps, he said, adding the only issue was international non- governmental organisations' (INGOs) "personal relations" with local communities, referring to Rakhines. There have been incidents where local INGO staff were attacked by Rakhines, who resent that aid is going to the Rohingya.
As chief minister, Maj-Gen Maung Maung Ohn has to navigate between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities, dealing with extremists on both sides. This has become even more crucial with elections to be held later this year.
He said the Rohingya will be resettled once an ongoing citizen verification process is done, and camp conditions will improve.
But he made clear those who insist on identifying themselves as Rohingya will not get citizenship. "That's not going to happen," said the chief minister, referring to the Rohingya as Bengalis.
While this group has been in Rakhine for a long time, often for generations, the "Rohingya" label is a red rag for local Rakhines who view them as recent illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, using the identity as a political tool to grab land, gain more rights and "Islamise" the state.
"The Rakhine community believe 'Rohingya' is a coined word," he said. "They say there is no such ethnicity in this country, so they reject it. This is the stand of the Rakhine people."
Myanmar law, too, does not recognise such an ethnic group, he added.