Reports come in of an attack on a mosque in Sittwe, Burma, as the conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims escalates.
The ‘Central Mosque’ is a beautiful building on the main street of Sittwe – the largest city in Burma’s Rakhine State. It is an exotic construction and I was fortunate to have a good view of it from the hotel we used on our last visit.
Its fanciful towers rise well above a protective wall and the palm trees and thick foliage which occupy part of the grounds.
Unfortunately, reports are now filtering through from Sittwe about an attack on the mosque by “one thousand” Rakhine Buddhists yesterday afternoon. Houses on the site used by the imam and other workers were destroyed and according to several accounts, the main building or “musallah” used for prayers has been damaged – but still stands I am told.
It’s just the latest round of violence between ethnic Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State – a continuation of hostilities which stretch back to early June, after an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men. Still, the attack on the ‘Central Mosque’ tells us two critical things.
First, the government’s attempts at keeping the peace – primarily by segregating the two groups – is not working. Secondly, it suggests that the conflict is spreading – in fact, it could now be better described as a regional conflict.
The government’s segregation policy consists of a couple of things – moving the Rohingya who lost their homes in early June out of Sittwe and into rural refugee camps – and prohibiting other Rohingya from leaving their villages or communities.
What this approach has not done is introduce any sort of reintegration and reconciliation policy. Without dialogue – and any attempt to settle longstanding grievances (like the call by Rohingya for Burmese citizenship) underlying tensions will be left to fester.
Just as concerning though is the fact that this conflict has spread into nearby Bangladesh – a country that is predominantly Muslim but contains a number of different ethnic Buddhist groups – including Rakhine Buddhists. Last week a dozen or more Buddhist temples and monasteries were burnt down in what many have seen as a revenge attack by Muslims upset by the treatment of Rohingya in Burma – and I am told by sources that two of the temples destroyed were Rakhine temples.
The Bangladesh government blamed the destruction on “radical Islamists, Rohingya and members of opposition parties;” but wagging the finger won’t calm things down. Only far-sighted leadership and statesmanship by the region’s politicians will do that.
It was a decision yesterday by the Burmese Army to intervene in Sittwe that ultimately saved much of the “Central Mosque”. But they won’t get much credit for their actions when news of the event starts to travel.