Burma’s government has been irked by a recent op-ed in a Bangladeshi newspaper suggesting that Rohingya-majority parts of Arakan State should hold a referendum on whether to secede from Burma.
State-owned media reported that the government summoned the Bangladeshi Ambassador on Monday to hand over a memo expressing Naypyidaw’s displeasure over the opinion piece, which appeared in the Dhaka Tribune on March 20.
The President’s Office director Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy that it was important that the government reacted to last week’s op-ed as it touched upon the ongoing inter-communal tensions between the Muslim minority and Buddhist population in Arakan State.
“The stability of our state outweighs the freedom of the expression of foreign media writing about our domestic affairs,” he said. “The conflict in Rakhine [Arakan] State is still in a sensitive condition and we do not want any public anxiety on the ground because of the article,” Zaw Htay added.
In strife-torn Arakan State, tensions remain high between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists, after recurrent outbursts of inter-communal violence since 2012 have displaced 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, and left almost 200 dead.
Bangladeshi journalist Zeeshan Khan claimed in the Dhaka Tribune op-ed that Crimea’s recent attempt to secede from Ukraine through a Russia-backed referendum—widely condemned as flawed by European nations, the US and Japan—provides an example on how to resolve the inter-communal conflict in western Burma.
The writer argued that Arakan’s Sittwe and Maungdaw districts could vote to secede from Burma in order to join Bangladesh’s Chittagong Division. Further down in the article, he adds another alternative into the mix by suggesting “they should have the option of forming an independent country between Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
Arakan State has been part of the Union of Burma since independence in 1947, prior to which the region was part of the British Raj, a colonial empire administration that included India, modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Burma.
The stateless Muslim minority call themselves Rohingya and say they have lived in northern Arakan State for generations, and are therefore entitled to Burmese citizenship.
Burma’s government, however, denies the group citizenship and terms them “Bengalis,” to suggest most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The UN and international researchers accuse the government of large-scale human rights violations against the Muslim group and of backing the local Buddhist community during outbursts of inter-communal violence.
In recent months, nationalist Buddhist monks of the 969 movement of U Wirathu have been raising these tensions by spreading anti-Muslim messages in Arakan and fanning fears of a takeover of Burma by South Asian Muslims.
The inter-communal conflict in Arakan State is highly sensitive in Burma and the recent article drew some angry reactions on Burmese social media sites and in local media outlets.
Mya Aye, an 88 Student Generation leader and Muslim, said in a reaction on his Facebook page “the article is just incitement and inflames the current racial and religious conflicts in Burma.”
“I want to tell the writer that we, the Islam in Burma, have never betrayed our country and are not accepting any kind of violence or terror acts and strongly object to any outside interference,” he wrote.
The Myanmar Journalists Association, for its part, also condemned the article saying it “intends to incite religious and racial hatred and conflicts in Myanmar, violates journalistic ethics, interferes in Myanmar’s domestic affairs and infringes on Myanmar’s sovereignty.”
In the past, Bangladesh has been forced to accept Rohingya refugees on to its territory after Burma’s then-military junta launched army operations in northern Arakan in the late 1970s and early 1990s that set hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing across the border.
The group is also not welcome in Bangladesh, however, and in the late 1990s Burma’s government agreed to let many return to Arakan State.