Burma violence concerns Southeast Asia

Participants at an ASEAN-UN workshop stressed the need to defuse tensions before they can spiral out of control and threaten stability elsewhere in the region.

By Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata for Khabar Southeast Asia in Jakarta

April 24, 2013
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As intercommunal violence continues in Burma, other countries in Southeast Asia are increasingly looking for ways they can help defuse tensions and contain any broader impact.

  • Rohingya Muslims from Burma pray at a detention centre in Medan, North Sumatra on April 7th. They were transferred from nearby Belawan immigration detention centre after eight Burmese Buddhists were killed there on April 5th by Rohingya. [Photos by Melli Yanti/Khabar]

    Rohingya Muslims from Burma pray at a detention centre in Medan, North Sumatra on April 7th. They were transferred from nearby Belawan immigration detention centre after eight Burmese Buddhists were killed there on April 5th by Rohingya. [Photos by Melli Yanti/Khabar]

  • ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh (left), Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa (centre) and UN Undersecretary General Vijay Nambiar spoke on April 5th in Jakarta, during a two-day UN-ASEAN workshop on preventive diplomacy.

    ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh (left), Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa (centre) and UN Undersecretary General Vijay Nambiar spoke on April 5th in Jakarta, during a two-day UN-ASEAN workshop on preventive diplomacy.

All the governments are conscious that they can't afford to let this kind of genie get out of the bottle," Vijay Nambiar, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's special adviser on Burma, told participants at a two-day ASEAN-UN workshop in Jakarta, according to The New York Times.

Indonesia, he said, is well-poised to lend its support to conflict resolution efforts.

"The kind of role that Indonesia can play is critical in finding a resolution to the regional implications of this issue," Nambiar said.

For several months now, Indonesia has been providing humanitarian aid to Burma's Rakhine state, where Buddhist-Muslim clashes have left scores dead and displaced more than 60,000 people. Media reports suggest that local authorities, paramilitary organisations and clerics have carried out an orchestrated attempt to cleanse the area of the Rohingyas, viewed by majority Burmese as intruders.

"The Rohingya people are awaiting determination of their status, whether they are really refugees and to be processed further by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees)," Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters as the workshop got under way.

A bloody brawl in Sumatra

The same day as the event started, concerns were amplified as violence broke out among Buddhists and Muslims at a detention centre on Sumatra Island, leaving eight Burmese dead. The bloodshed may have been in retribution for clashes at home in Burma, media reports said.

A group of Rohingya Muslims – apparently enraged by photos of the violence back home – allegedly attacked Buddhist detainees with broom handles and parts of bed frames.

"The bodies were covered in blood. It looked like they were beaten and tortured to death," immigration centre official Rida Agustian was quoted as saying.

To avoid further violence, North Sumatra police deployed ten officers to guard the centre, and co-ordinated with immigration offices in the province to detain Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya refugees separately. While the incident was an isolated one, it has rattled nerves.

Preserving a fragile balance

Keeping the peace among diverse religious and ethnic communities has been a longstanding challenge for many countries in the region, including both Indonesia and Malaysia. Majority-Muslim Indonesia officially recognises six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Malaysia, meanwhile, has a majority population of Malays who practice Islam. But 19% of the population, particularly among the Chinese minority, identify themselves as Buddhists, and the country is also home to Tamil Hindus and Christians.

Burma responsive to concerns

Speaking at a joint press conference with Nambiar and ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh, Foreign Minister Marty said that unstable domestic conditions can become a non-traditional type of security threat to the rest of the region.

"It is obviously a national issue for Burma. At the same time, as a family member of ASEAN, we are keen to ensure that the Burma government would be able to handle the issue in a manner consistent within ASEAN that is respectful of human rights and democratic principles," Marty said.

According to Nambiar, the reform-minded administration of Burmese President Thein Sein has shown a willingness to try and tackle the problem before it escalates out of control.

But concern still persists after a recent report by Human Rights Watch accused Burma of complicity in the anti-Rohingya violence.

"I think there is a fair amount of determination I have noticed within the government in addressing both the immediate and longer-term issues relating to the unrest," he said.

Nambiar said radicalisation is "obviously a danger" that every national government has to be aware of. He added that Burma's new civilian government has had to maintain a difficult balancing act as it simultaneously tries to reduce the role of the military while also containing the disturbances.

"Considering the fact that there are certain constraints the government has faced with regard to the use of the police in terms of equipment and the speed of their response, I think there is a need felt by the government to send a firm message that stability will be restored and disorder will not be tolerated. Only in respect of security will the army be used," Nambiar said.

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