Myanmar's Religious and Ethnic Conflicts: no end in sight

Against the backdrop of persistent ethnic tensions, the second round of the peace conference of Burmese government, army (Tatmadaw) and ethnic minorities begins on 24 May in Myanmar. The political internal climate and the relationship of Aung San Suu Kyi to the international community projected its shadows ahead.

The November 2015 landslide election victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had raised great hopes. Yet, at present, they seem out of reach, and there is increasing skepticism about whether the "lady" will be able to pacify the country that has been rift by conflict for decades. Since August 2016, old conflicts have erupted anew and become more virulent, especially in the north and the east of the country. What is fuelling these renewed ethnic tensions and violent conflicts?

The tragedy of the Rohingya

In Rakhine State, in north-western Myanmar which is also known as Arakan, the ethno-religious conflict between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority of the Rohingya has escalated since 2016 ‒ with dire consequences for the political arena. According to media reports, in the wake of the killing of nine police officers on the border with Bangladesh in October 2016 (perpetrated, according to the Myanmar government, by "Islamist terrorists")[1], retaliatory measures resulted in the death of about 130 people.[2] Quoting satellite images as evidence, Human Rights Watch claimed that about 1,500 buildings had been burned to the ground.[3]

The United Nations has recorded more than 70,000 stateless Rohingya, who, because of the fighting, have fled to Bangladesh where they are presently stranded.[4] United Nations investigations indicate atrocities committed by the Myanmar forces included indiscriminate killings, including killing of children, enforced disappearance, gang rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, and destruction of property including food sources[5]. These crimes have been noted to amount to crimes against humanity.[6]

The government has vigorously dismissed such accusations levelled at the security forces as propaganda.[7] Shortly before Christmas, the government allowed a group of local journalists to visit the region for three days, however all their encounters were stage-managed by the Information Ministry and the security forces.[8] So far there has been no independent reporting. The government has appointed a review panel, yet this is chaired by the government-appointed Vice President Myint Swe, a lieutenant-general, former head of the military secret service, and former Chief Minister of Yangon.[9]

One crucial problem is that, so far, it has been impossible to get confirmation or an independent review of any of the reports, and one of the reasons for this is that no Burmese or foreign observers have been allowed into the region for independent reporting. In the report about her mission to Myanmar, dating from January 2017, Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, was rather critical of the government.[10] For example, she voiced doubt about the government's claim that the Rohingya had torched their own houses in order to have them rebuilt by the international community, stating, "I find it quite incredible that these desperate people burn down their own houses … to be without home, potentially displaced, for more than five years like those in Sittwe, just to give the Government a bad name."[11]

Online there are videos filmed by mobile phone, which show how police officers corral Muslim villagers and mistreat them. While the government claims that those are isolated cases, Lee is doubtful, noting this could indicate that such behavior is common practice.[12] In her conclusions she clearly condemns the Myanmar government, saying, "The government’s response to all of these problems seems to currently be to defend, dismiss and deny."[13]

Even more dramatic are some of the paragraphs towards the conclusion of Lee's End of Mission Report, which was undertaken to meet refugees on the other side of the border, in Bangladesh. There, Lee encountered Rohingya that had fled, and she reported, "The magnitude of violence that these families witnessed and experienced was far more extensive than I had originally speculated."[14] She then goes on to describe human rights violations and atrocities reported by the refugees. Thus far it has been impossible to gain independent confirmation of such misdeeds or investigate them within Myanmar. The government dismisses most such reports as pure propaganda spread by the Rohingya themselves, and they accuse Lee of being one-sided, an accusation she herself denied at a hearing of the UN Human Rights Council. Also, the statements collected by her are backed up by a number of reports gathered by civil-society organizations from among the refugees in Bangladesh.[15]

A recently arranged trip for journalists reveals the complex realities in Rakhine that could further obstruct accurate information gathering and review. Residents were noted to self-censor or provide inaccurate information for fear of reprisal, not only by the military but also by militants in the area.[16] This fear was not unfounded; during the visit, journalists reported the killing of a resident who had disclosed information on the militants’ operations.[17] The security of Rakhine residents who offer information also needs to be safeguarded for independent investigations on human rights violations committed by both the military and militias. 

Regarding the question of Rakhine, the relationship between Myanmar's government and the international community is all but good. As one of her first acts after taking office, Aung San Suu Kyi had appointed an international advisory committee on Rakhine, chaired by Kofi Annan and tasked with developing possible solutions to the conflict. For many, this was a positive signal, however the commission has met with massive resistance from the Buddhist ethnic majority in Rakhine (the "Arakan") that oppose any kind of outside interference.[18] Aung San Suu Kyi herself affronted the international community early on, when she asked the US ambassador (and thus all international actors) to refrain from using the term Rohingya.[19]

A brief contextualization[i]

In May 2015, a politician incited a crowd in a public rally stating “kill and bury” all the Rohingyas: A statement that was applauded and repeated by the crowd.[20] Such sentiments and outright discrimination of the Rohingya people can be traced to the long history of ethno-religious tensions in Rakhine. During World War II, Rakhine was a front line where the Muslim Rohingya fought with the British while the Buddhists joined forces with the Japanese. Consequently, the Muslims and the Buddhists attacked each other leading to massacres on both sides between 1942 and 1943[21]. In addition, when Britain re-conquered its colony of Burma from the Japanese, Rohingya committed acts of violence against the Buddhist Arakan, destroying some of their villages, as well as Buddhist monasteries and pagodas.[22]

After independence, the government of Myanmar favored the Buddhist over the Muslims population in Rakhine. Although the government became more accepting of the Rakhine Muslims as peoples of Burma in the 1950s,[23] subsequent governments have been unwilling to recognize them as such. As a consequence, an independence movement emerged, demanding an autonomous Muslim state [24]. In 1978, former Burmese dictator Ne Win launched an operation aimed at driving out illegal immigrants and refugees. An estimated 200,000 people are recorded to have fled from Burma into Bangladesh that year from March.[25]

The Rohingya are noted to have fled due to fear of being classified as illegal immigrants.[26] Although most of them were subsequently repatriated after the signing of the 1978 Repatriation Agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, this exodus to Bangladesh continued following the adoption of the 1982 Citizenship Law and increased military activities in 1991. It is estimated that about 250,000 Rohingyas had fled to Bangladesh by early 1992, with 200,000 being subsequently repatriated after the signing of another repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh with international mediation.[27]

According to the Rohingya, Ne Win employed a divide and conquer strategy, playing off the Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine to reduce calls of autonomy of Rakhine.[28] The rejection of the Muslim proposal for an autonomous state and the subsequent denial of their citizenship saw a rise of insurgency which was met by a military offensive. This further intensified the liberation movement in Arakan as well as tensions between the Muslim and Buddhist population. Ethnic and religious tensions led to violence in 2012 after an Arakan woman was raped ‒ reportedly by Muslim men.[29] The consequent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan culminated to the death of 200 people and the displaced of about 140,000 people, most of whom were Muslims.[30] This violence increased anti-Muslim sentiments and “Buddhist nationalist hate speech”, further spreading anti-Muslim violence in the country.[31]

For the Arakan, as well as for the overwhelming part of Myanmar's Buddhist majority population, the Rohingya are not Burmese at all. They are called "Bengali" to point out that they are post-colonial immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, most of which supposedly came into the country after Bangladesh's independence in 1971. The Arakan have a primal fear that their dominant Buddhist culture will be swamped through demographic change, and this is one of the main reasons underlying the conflict; however, economic factors and competition for scarce resources also figure large. Although the term “Rohingya” only became widely used in the 1950s, [32] the Rohingya claim that the origin of their ethnonym, and thus the presence of their ethnic group in Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan), goes back to the 14th century ‒ or at least to the end of the 18th century.[33] Muslim influence in the region goes back much further than the 18th century, and as early as the beginning of the 19th century a significant percentage of the population was Muslim. The actual tragedy of the Rohingya, however, began in the mid-20th century when, bit by bit, they were deprived of their citizenship and thus of the rights that go with it.

After independence, Rakhine's Muslim minority was issued National Registration Cards (NRC). Later on those NRC bore the following statement: "Holding this certificate shall not be considered as a conclusive proof as of to citizenship." Starting in the 1970s, no further NRCs were issued to the Rohingya, and the old NRCs were seized.[34] The 1982 nationality law, which was much criticized by the UN,[35] implied that inhabitants of Burma would have to apply or reapply for citizenship under the new law. The 1982 Citizenship Law, which led to the introduction of color coded citizenship scrutiny cards, differentiated between citizens (pink card), associate citizens (blue card), and naturalized citizens (green card); foreign residents got white cards. To get the pink card one had to proof ancestry dating before 1823; for the blue card, ancestry after 1823 with qualified citizenship under the 1948 Citizenship Law; and for the green card, ancestral residence prior to 1948.

The heavy burden of proof placed on the Rohingyas could explain why by the end of 1992, Arakan State was noted to have the worst rates of rejection on citizenship application.[36] In 1995, due to pressure from the UNHCR, the Rohingya were given white cards, so-called "Temporary Registration Cards (TRC)." Nevertheless, these do not convey citizenship rights, and the Rohingya were thus effectively deprived of their citizenship rights and became denaturalised. On the basis of this law, the Rohingya were no longer eligible for the pink NRCs guaranteeing full citizenship ‒ thus laying the groundwork for making the Muslim minority, initially, second class citizens and, later, rendering them stateless.[37]

All quiet on the eastern front?

A second drama is currently unfolding in Myanmar's Kachin State, as well as in Shan State, which are located in northern and eastern Myanmar. Shortly after coming to power, Aung San Suu Kyi declared that her first priority would be to negotiate a lasting peace. She also promised that the peace process would facilitate the establishment of a federal and democratic Union.[38] In August 2016, she invited the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO) as well as their political representatives to an initial peace summit. However, due to pressure from the armed forces (Tatmadaw) some important groups were not included. In the months following the conference, there was intense fighting between the army and the EAO, especially in Kachin State and in the north of Shan State. One important factor in the conflict is the control of natural resources in those ethnic areas.

More recently, the intensity of the fighting between Tatmadaw and EAO has been on the rise, and it has escalated to levels not seen in years. For example, last August, tensions between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Tatmadaw blew up into bloody war, after a KIO attack on a police convoy along the Moekaung Hpakant Highway.[39] The continuing attacks and counter-attacks launched by the two conflict parties have resulted in thousands of people "[being] stranded in no man’s land on the Myanmar-China border, trapped by fighting between the ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw on one side, and barred from seeking refuge on the other [(China)]"[40] The situation is especially critical for the many internally displaced persons (IDP) whose access to emergency relief falls far behind their basic needs ‒ and this while the fighting continues unabated, and more and more people have to flee their temporary accommodation.[41]

In Kokang, where China borders on the north of Shan State, conflict has also erupted anew. In early March, after an attack by the security forces, heavy fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).[42] As a consequence, thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting have been added to the estimated 27,000 "forgotten refugees"[43] from earlier clashes.

In the meantime, the Tatmadaw is focusing its attacks on the so-called Northern Alliance, lead by the KIO.[44] The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, has called the situation extremely worrying, adding, that "today, the situation [in Kachin State] is worse than it has been in years."[45] For "security reasons" she was denied from visiting the jade mining region of Hpakant. She claims that the UN and other international organizations are systematically denied access to the circa 40,000 internally displaced persons in the region and are thus unable to provide them with vital emergency relief.

The Road to Peace

The peace process in Myanmar has been characterized by negotiations between the Myanmar army (the Tatmadaw), the government, and various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). Although the signing of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015 signaled progress in the peace process, this process has not advanced much further. Our interview with Dr. Sai Oo of the Yangon-based Pyidaungsu Institute reveals that the road to peace will not be a smooth one. Some armed organizations, notably members of the United Nationalities Federal Council, have not signed the NCA. Some, the Arakan army, Ta’ang National Liberation Front, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance, have been excluded from the peace process. The Tatmadaw and the government are divided on the way ahead in the peace process. The former continues to pursue armed organizations militarily hence the continuous heavy fighting.

As Sai Oo notes, the Tatmadaw might have the objective of securing a strategic position, both militarily and politically. EAOs are also determined to gain a strategic position in the negotiation table. There is a general consensus among scholars that the success of peace building mechanisms such as mediation is tied to the cost of conflict to engaging parties.[46] It is most successful when the parties do not see a successful outcome through the use of violence or/and perceive the costs to be unbearable. Currently this ‘hurting stalemate’ seems not to have been reached as the Tatmadaw and the EAOs continue to hold strong positions. For peace to be achieved both sides need to be willing to move away from the status quo and genuinely negotiate a solution.

Part two of the Union Peace Conference, which had been scheduled to take place at the end of February 2017, has continuously been postponed by Aung San Suu Kyi. Even though the next round of the conference is supposed to take place in May 2017, the peace process seems to be at a dead end. The ethnic minorities are, by and large, disenchanted ‒ and for this state of affairs they are blaming the Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi. The "lady" herself has remained mostly silent, one interpretation of which is that she is putting on a brave face, as there is little she can actually do ‒ short of admitting in public that the Tatmadaw is doing as it pleases. It is uncertain how much scope she has to influence developments. However, it is also possible that there is a tacit agreement between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, or even that she supports the hard line taken by the armed forces.

For the Tatmadaw this is the best of both worlds, as it is able, once again, to present itself as the guardian of national unity and stability. If the conflict continues to simmer at low or medium heat, this will, above all, play into the hands of the Tatmadaw.

[1] Radio Free Asia (RFA) (2016): Myanmar Says Islamic Terrorist Organization Behind Deadly Border Raids in Rakhine State

[2] BBC News: Hundreds of Rohingya try to escape Myanmar crackdown. 16 November 2016,

[3] Human Rights Watch (2016): Burma: Military Burned Villages in Rakhine State. Witnesses and Satellite Imagery Reveal Pattern of Burnings.

[4] Tan, V. (UNHCR) (2017): UNHCR seeks equal treatment for all Rohingya in Bangladesh. Retrieved from

[5] See, OHCHR (2017): Report of OHCHR mission to Bangladesh. Interviews with Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar since 9 October 2016. Flash Report

[6] United Nations, General Assembly. Written statement submitted by the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, a non-governmental organization in special consultative status. A/HRC/34/NGO/126 (20 February 2017) Retrieved from

[7] See for example The Independent, 4 January 2017: Burmese government denies ongoing genocide of Rohingya Muslims;

[8] See Mizzima, 26 December 2016

[9] A position similar to that of a governor of a US state

[10] These reports and related documents are available at

[11] End of Mission Statement, 20 January 2017,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] End of Mission Statement, 24 February 2017,

[15] See for example Amnesty International (2016): Bangladesh pushes back Rohingya refugees amid collective punishment in Myanmar.

[16] Frontier Myanmar. 4 May 2017. Maungdaw: Violence and Fear. Vol. 2, Issue 45, pp. 14-19.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See for example Myanmar Times, 6 September 2016

[19] See for example New York Times, 6 May 2016

[20] United Nations, General Assembly. Communications report of Special Procedures. A/HRC/31/79 (19 February 2016)

[21] International Crisis Group. (2016). Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State. Asia Report N. 283. Brussels. p.3

[22] Chan, A. (2005). The development of a Muslim enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) state of Burma (Myanmar). SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, 3,2, p.406

[23] In 1954, U Nu, the first elected Prime Minister of Burma, recognized the Rohingyas as “national brethren”, a political gesture that has been denied by consequent governments. Source: Radio speech by Prime Minister U Nu, 25 September 1954 at 8:00pm. Also see: International Federation of Human Rights League. (2000). Burmese: Repression, discrimination, and ethnic cleaning in Arakan. International Mission of Inquiry p.6; and Human Rights Watch. (1996). The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of exodus? Vol.8, No. 8 (c) p.8

[24] See note no.19 and no.20

[25] Klaus Fleischmann (1981). Arakan Konfliktregion zwischen Birma und Bangladessh. Mitteilungen Des Instituts für Asienkunde. Hamburg. P. 114. Referencing: Asia 1979 Yearbook. (1979). Far Eastern Economic Review. Hongkong. p.128

[26] Moshe Yegar (2002). Between integration and secession: The Muslim communities of the southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and western Burma/Myanmar. p. 55

[27] International Crisis Group. (2013). The dark side of transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar. Report No. 251, p. 5.

[28] Mayyu Education and Development Foundation (2016): unpublished study “A glimpse into the history and culture of Rohingyas”, p.51

[29] International Crisis Group. June 12, 2012. Myanmar conflict alert: Preventing communal bloodshed and building better relations.

[30] International Crisis Group. (2013). The dark side of transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar. Report No. 251, p. i.

[31] International Crisis Group. (2016). Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State. Asia Report No. 283, p.5

[32] See: Aye Chan (2005). The development of a Muslim enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) state of Burma (Myanmar). SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol.3, No.2, p.397

[33] Mayyu Education and Development Foundation (2016): unpublished study “A glimpse into the history and culture of Rohingyas”. Also see a historical account in Leider, J.P. (2013). Rohingya: the name, the movement, and the quest for identity. pp. 2-10

[34] Mayyu Education and Development Foundation (2016): unpublished study “A glimpse into the history and culture of Rohingyas”.

[35] See: United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. (June 28, 2016) Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. A/HRC/32/18 pp.7-8

[36] Human Rights Watch. (1996). Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a cycle of exodus? Vol. 8, No. 9 (c)

[37] Also see: Human Rights Watch. (2000). Burmese refugees in Bangladesh: Still no durable solution, Vol. 12, No. 3 p.9

[38] “The split in the UNFC”, Frontier, Vol. 2, Issue 40 of 30 March 2017.

[39] Myanmar Times, 10 August 2016

[40] See for example Myanmar Times 16 January 2017

[41] Myanmar Times, 16 January 2017

[42] See for example Mizzima, 16 March 2017 and also Myanmar Times, 7 March 2017

[43] Ann Wang in Frontier Myanmar, 8 March 2016: The forgotten refugees of Kokang,

[44] Radio Free Asia, Northern Alliance Sets Sights on Next Myanmar Peace Conference, 24 January 2017. This source states: "The Northern Alliance, which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), teamed up last November to carry out coordinated attacks on government and military targets in northern Shan state.”

[45] See Yanghee Lee's statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council, 13. March 2017,

[46] See, Greig, J.M. (2005). Stepping into the Fray: When do mediators mediate? American Journal of Political Science, 49, 2, p.249-266.


[i] Please note that this is not an exhaustive account of the complex context with a contested history