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Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms

Myanmar's president warned of a threat to stability and democratization as Buddhist and Muslim minorities clash over longstanding grievances.

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Ethnic Rakhine Buddhist monks gather at Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, June 12. The monks prayed for those who died in recent communal clashes in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

Aye Aye Win/AP

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The deadly race riots now cleaving northwestern Myanmar are an alarming reminder of a key threat to the country’s fragile and embryonic democracy: conflict among Myanmar’s myriad ethnic groups.

Violence continued Tuesday in Arakan state, three days after President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency there and sent troops to quell the looting, arson, and mob clashes that have pitted the Buddhist Rakhine minority against Muslim Rohingya. At least seven people were reported killed.

The president warned in a televised speech that “if we put racial and religious issues at the forefront … if we continue to retaliate and terrorize and kill each other … the country’s stability and peace, democratization process and development … could be severely affected and much would be lost.”

Many ethnic minorities have waged guerrilla insurgencies against the government since Myanmar’s (Burma's) independence in 1948, seeking wider economic and political autonomy from the central authorities, which are dominated by the majority Bamar. The current clashes, however, are different, setting two minorities against each other, and posing an awkward security challenge for the government as it seeks to present a softer and more democratic image, steering the country away from military rule.

Hostility between the Rakhine and the Rohingya dates back many decades; as British troops fell back before the advancing Japanese in 1942, Rakhine mobs took advantage of the power vacuum to launch a pogrom against their neighbors.

The Rakhine regard the Rohingya – descended from laborers imported from what is now Bangladesh by the British colonial government more than a century ago – as foreign intruders. (See map here.)

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