The explosion of sectarian violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Western Myanmar has highlighted the fragility of relations between Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups, analysts say.
It has refocused attention on the seemingly intractable issue of the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state, who are not recognized as an official ethnic group and are essentially stateless.
A cycle of revenge attacks erupted in the state this month when 10 Muslims were beaten to death by a mob of Rakhine Buddhists, in an apparent response to the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by three men described as “Bengali Muslims”.
Coming at a time of newfound freedom in the media and on the Internet, the episode spawned furious rumours which helped fuel the conflict, sending it dangerously into xenophobic territory for the Burman majority.
The conflict has killed 29 people – 16 Muslims and 13 Buddhists – since last Friday, with about 31,900 people displaced and nearly 2,600 homes burnt, said Colonel Htein Lin, security and border affairs minister for Rakhine. The area remains under a state of emergency.
Neither India nor China, both of whom have economic interests in Rakhine and share their borders with Myanmar, wants sectarian tension to spin out of control.
At the height of the violence, wild claims were often repeated across the Internet without verification. One rumor circulating in Yangon had armed “Bengalis” in boats arriving at Sittwe, the state capital, and threatening to attack the Myanmar army.
“More openness has opened the Pandora's box of sectarian violence,” said a Yangon-based analyst, who asked not to be identified.
The government has responded by warning the media to avoid inflammatory reports. It has closed down the magazine Snapshot, which first printed gruesome pictures of the Rakhine Buddhist woman raped and killed on May 28, allegedly by the three men now in custody.
There is a very real danger that foreign investors will be frightened away by the ongoing ethnic tensions, the Yangon-based analyst said.
“Indians, Chinese, not to mention people from Indonesia or Malaysia, will think twice before coming here, unless the situation really is resolved. I don't see how it could be, at this point,” he said.
The United Nations regards Myanmar's 800,000 or so Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. The Myanmar government and many ethnic Rakhines, however, who are mostly Buddhist, view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Even pro-democracy advocates support the nationalist narrative. Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of the so-called 88 Generation student activist group, and a former political prisoner, said at a media conference: “This is not a Muslim [or] religious issue. We need to be clear on that.”
“The Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group. [They are] illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The root cause of the violence... comes from across the border and foreign countries.”
But Bangladesh does not see them as Bengali or Bangladeshi either. Bangladesh is already home to some 500,000 Rohingya, tens of thousands of whom live in squalid camps.
Intelligence agencies in the region – including in India – are suspicious of possible Rohingya links with radical groups in Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Bangladesh has pushed back Rohingya fleeing Rakhine state, saying it is unprepared for another influx of refugees.
For now, the violence in Rakhine appears to have ebbed. The government has set up 37 camps across the state and started an official inquiry.