Ethnic conflicts in Myanmar


Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country composed of seven ethnically designated states and regions (with Bamar or Burman majority) referred to in the colonial period as ‘Frontier’ Burma and ‘Ministerial’ Burma. The Burmans (mostly Buddhist), who are 68 per cent of the total population, form the majority. The other ethnic groups are the Shans, the Karens, the Rakhines, the Kachins, Chins, Was, Palaungs, the Nagas, etc.

The British effectively put the country on a path of separate economic and political development when it divided it into ‘Ministerial Burma’ (dominated by the Burmans and directly governed) and ‘Outer Burma’ (dominated by the minorities and allowed a measure of autonomy).

The British policy of preferring minorities in their recruitment to the army and civil administration saw a reaction in the post-independence period of military rule.

The 2008 Constitution provided for six Self-Administered Zone/Division: Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Pa Laung, Kokang and Wa respectively.

Following the 2010 general elections, demands for a second Panglong Conference were raised. However, the statelessness of Rohingya Muslims contributed to the violence and refugee flow seen in the recent past.

The 2012 Rohingya conflict

Rohingyas are the muslim people who live in the state of Rakhine (Arakan) in western Myanmar. As of 2012, 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar. According to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The 2012 Rakhine State riots are a series of ongoing conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. The riots came after weeks of sectarian disputes and have been condemned by most people on both sides of the conflict.

The Rohingya conflict is one of the longest conflicts between the majority Buddhist Burmese and the minority Muslims in Myanmar. It has led to the displacement of large number of people across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, especially from the Rakhine state.

The tragic aspect of this issue is that about 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar are stateless people. They are not recognised as an ethnic indigenous minority or citizens of Myanmar.

Impact of Rohingya conflict on India

Bangladesh, which has a 271 km long border with Myanmar, houses nearly 300,000 Rohingya refugees, especially in Cox Bazar. Many of these refugees are without jobs and could fall prey to radical ideologies. They may join the Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islam (HuJI) which has been accused of carrying out bomb blasts in Assam.

Another aspect could be the fear of a major spill over of the conflict into India’s north-east in terms of refugee flow from across the porous Bangladesh-India border.

The north-east is a region plagued by armed ethnic conflicts based on issues of land and identity. Further inroads by a refugee population could exacerbate the situation in the north-east.

India’s role

India, on its part, desires stability in its neighbourhood and especially because of the common ethnic population on either side of the India-Myanmar border.

India seeks to contribute to ethnic peace in Myanmar through improved economic condition, greater connectivity, emphasis on community based development with emphasis on health and education sector.

In all this besides the government, the private sector and NGOs are required to be important stakeholders.