Q&A: Communal violence in Burma

This file picture taken on March 22, 2013 shows policemen forming a line as they block access to part of the town where a house is burning in riot-hit Meiktila, central Myanmar The authorities have been criticised for their failure to act as violence hit parts of central Burma

Religious and ethnic tensions have bubbled to the surface in Burma, also known as Myanmar, with deadly consequences.

In 2012, waves of violence engulfed parts of Rakhine state, leaving nearly 200 people dead and thousands displaced.

After deadly rioting erupted in central Burma in March 2013, it became clear that tensions had spread.

In the latest wave of violence in January, the UN said more than 40 people were killed in Rakhine state.

What is the nature of Burma's communal violence?

Clashes have taken place in both the western state of Rakhine, and in parts of central Burma.

In 2012 widespread rioting and brutal clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, largely thought to be Rohingya Muslims, devastated parts of Rakhine.

It was the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman that May which sparked off the deadly chain of events. Violence escalated as Muslims and Buddhists attacked each other.

Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims blamed each other for the violence which left almost 200 dead and displaced thousands. Many Rohingyas fled and crossed the border with Bangladesh.

In March 2013 Meiktila in central Burma was the site of violence between Buddhists and Muslims which left more than 40 people dead.

A dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop escalated into a fight, and after a Buddhist monk died in an attack a mob assault on Muslim areas led to entire neighbourhoods being razed.

In August 2013 rioters burnt Muslim-owned houses and shops in the central town of Kanbalu after police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman.

In October 2013 violence in Rakhine state broke out again, killing at least seven people.

In the latest violence, in January, the UN said that more than 40 Rohingya men, women and children were killed in Rakhine state.

It said eight Rohingya Muslim men were killed by Rakhine villagers on 9 January.

A police sergeant was then killed by Rohingya villagers on 13 January, and at least 40 Rohingya were killed by police and Rakhine villagers that evening, the UN said.

Rohingya people collect water from a well near their barracks at Bawdupah's Internally Displaced People camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, Burma, 18 May 2013 Thousands of Rohingya have been displaced by violence in Rakhine

How have the authorities handled the unrest?

The authorities have been criticised for failing to act swiftly and assertively enough in the outbreaks of violence.

Following the violence in Rakhine in June 2012, the government eventually declared a state of emergency across the state.

In March 2013, it also imposed a state of emergency in Meiktila after three days of clashes.

Night-time curfews remain in place in parts of Rakhine State and in Meiktila.

In April 2013, Human Rights Watch said that although state forces did intervene to protect fleeing Muslims, more often they fuelled unrest either by standing by or taking part in violence.

All their allegations were rejected by the government, with a spokesman saying the group did not understand the situation on the ground.

The government sentenced at least 10 Muslims and 20 Buddhists for their role in the Meiktila violence in 2013.

However, the government has yet to present any long-term proposals to resolve the conflicts.

The UN said that both police and local Rakhine villagers were involved in the latest violence in Rakhine in January.

Residents walk past buildings burning in riot-hit Meiktila, central Burma, 21 March 2013 Neighbourhoods were burned and looted during the riots in Meiktila

Are the outbreaks of violence linked and might it spread?

Burma has a long history of communal mistrust, which was allowed to simmer, and was at times exploited, under military rule.

While there are not thought to be direct links between the various outbreaks of communal unrest, the mistrust felt for decades is out in the open now in the new climate of freedom.

Observers say the government is not doing enough to head the violence off and because of this, further conflict is a risk.

It is particularly difficult for journalists to operate in Rakhine state and verify reports. But reports say tensions remain high and many people are yet to return to their homes.

Analysts say the potential for unrest to flare up again or even spread remains.

What is the religious angle to the violence?

In Rakhine state, there have been particularly bitter and long-standing tensions between the Rakhine people, who are Buddhist and make up the majority of the state's population, and Muslims.

Most of these Muslims identify themselves as Rohingya, a group that originated in part of Bengal, now called Bangladesh.

In the towns bordering Bangladesh, where several clashes have taken place, the majority of the population is Muslim.

Overseas-based Rohingya rights groups have said that Rohingyas bore the brunt of the violence. Rakhine Buddhists said Rohingyas were mainly to blame.

In central Burma the violence is not thought to involve Rohingya Muslims. Instead members of Burma's other Muslim communities have been affected.

Burma map

Who are the Rohingyas?

The United Nations describes Rohingya as a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. It says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

But even the origins of the word Rohingya, and how they came to be in Burma, are controversial with some historians saying the group dates back centuries and others saying it only emerged as a campaigning force last century.

The Burmese government says they are relatively recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent. As a result, the country's constitution does not include them among indigenous groups qualifying for citizenship.

Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, who they view as Muslim people from another country. There is widespread public hostility towards the Rohingya in Burma.

The Rohingya, on the other hand, feel they are part of Burma and claim persecution by the state. Neighbouring Bangladesh already hosts several hundred thousand refugees from Burma and says it cannot take any more.

What kind of threat does this pose for the Burmese state?

These troubles are being seen as a key test for Burma, which saw a nominally civilian government elected in 2010 after decades of oppressive military rule.

The clashes have raised concerns about the fragility of Burma's democracy. President Thein Sein has previously said that the Rakhine violence puts the country's moves towards democracy in danger.

Burma needs to be seen as a stable state, but it is always going to have to contend with the fact that it is one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries and people are watching to see how the government handles tensions between its many communities.

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