Trust-building will "take some time" between ethnic Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, where clashes between the two groups left more than 200 dead last year, a Rakhine community leader said Monday.
Chairwoman of the Rakhine Women’s Network Nyo Aye said that nongovernment organizations and the international community have unfairly portrayed the Rohingya Muslim community as having borne the brunt of the violence.
This has contributed to continued animosity against them in the Buddhist community, she told RFA's Myanmar Service on Monday following a meeting in the Rakhine capital Sittwe with U.S. Embassy officials to discuss ways of fostering peace between the two groups.
She said that the embassy officials “know it will take some time” before the two communities can live together in the same place and have asked her and other Rakhine leaders for ways to help the groups put aside their differences.
"[The U.S. officials] said that they want us to live together peacefully and that they are interested in [the development of] our region, but we Rakhine people can’t trust anybody and have many doubts because we feel that local and international NGOs are treating us unfairly," she said.
Rakhine state was the scene of clashes last year that left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, the majority of them Rohingya Muslims who were attacked by Buddhist mobs, according to rights groups.
Nyo Aye said that in one case following a clash, NGOs had assisted three Rohingyas with superficial injuries by bringing them to the hospital, while leaving behind a young Rakhine girl close to death because of injuries sustained after being stabbed by a Muslim.
“What we feel is that [the local and international NGOs] should help both communities equally or fairly,” she said.
She also called on NGOs and international organizations such as the United Nations to “educate [the Rohingya] on how to live politely.”
“Myanmar’s government should also understand [the need for this] and take opportunities to educate them as such.”
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the government to be illegal immigrants.
Most people in Myanmar call the Rohingyas “Bengali,” indicating that they have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.
Nyo Aye told the embassy officials that in order to promote peace, the Rohingyas should stop using the term to refer to themselves.
“If both communities want to end the conflicts, the Muslims in Rakhine state shouldn't refer to themselves with the name ‘Rohingya’ that they often use while speaking to the international media,” she said.
“I told them that if we can stop them from using this name, this could be the first step in building peace.”
Rohingyas say they should be a recognized ethnic group in Myanmar and that they should be granted citizenship and the social benefits that go along with it.
Nyo Aye also suggested that cultural events could be used to break down barriers between the two groups.
“They asked my opinion about whether they should perform plays that might make the two communities realize they should live together peacefully. I replied that music and art could soften the people’s hearts,” she said.
“I said that they should also create plays with messages from the national and state government about what [the Muslims] should do to live together peacefully, to educate them so they will stop violence, like the raping of Rakhine girls.”
Last month, a delegation from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) flew to Sittwe to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against Rohingyas and was met by about 3,000 protesters, led by Buddhist monks, as they toured camps housing mostly displaced Rohingya refugees as well as some ethnic Rakhines and met local officials.
Buddhists protesters have staged demonstrations across the country, calling on the OIC not to interfere in the country’s affairs and objecting to any plans for the group to open a domestic office in the country, saying the organization is only interested in providing aid for Rohingyas and other Muslims.
At least another 45 people, including non-Rohingya Muslims, have died this year in sporadic outbreaks of sectarian violence both in Rakhine and across the country.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.