Sustainable social development

Strengthening everyday peace formation via community development in Myanmar’s Rohingya–Rakhine conflict


To achieve sustainable outcomes, community development in deeply divided, poor societies must address the drivers of both poverty and inter-communal tension. One of the most promising recent theoretical advances examining the bridging between communities in conflict-affected situations is that of‘everyday peace’, suggesting that the strengthening of everyday peace formation is crucial to both creating the space for and then maintaining community development (CD) outcomes.

This chapter examines one CD programme working in the conflict situation of Rakhine State, Myanmar, between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims. This programme operates amongst communities on the periphery of this violence, deeply impacted by conflict fears and narratives, yet remaining in their villages rather than displaced, adopting a participatory arts-based pedagogy. After outlining the context and programme, this chapter summarises the key theoretical foundations of the programme and then examines evidence that it has given rise to critical-awareness of conflict dynamics and strengthened the empowerment of local actors to advance everyday peace formation between ethnic Rakhine villages and their Rohingya neighbours in sustainable ways.

The context: conflict and poverty

Prior to the recent violence, Rakhine State, the westernmost state in Myanmar, was home to about 2 million ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, and small numbers of Burmans and other ethnic minorities (Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2015). Violence drove 720,000 Rohingya Muslims across the Bangladeshi border in 2017-18, leaving no more than 550,000 in Myanmar. The mass violence reflects very high levels of intercommunal fear and tension. Massive army operations, labelled ethnic cleansing ‘with genocidal intent’ by the United Nations (Human Rights Council 2018: 16), were provoked by Rohingya insurgent attacks in 2016 and 2017 and supported by ethnic Rakhine nationalist groups. However, this was not an isolated case of violence, but another episode in a long-running conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the Rohingya, and the Burman majority (Myanmar’s dominant ethnicity).

Origins of the conflict can be traced to the destruction of the old Arakan kingdom by the Burmans in 1784, the impact of colonial era (1824-1948) migration, and atrocities committed during World War II and the civil war after independence in 1948. The Rohingya, as demonstrated by recent violence, are genuinely existentially threatened. The etlmic Rakhine also hold deep existential fears that the Burmans have been attempting to destroy their culture and identity for centuries on the one hand and that they are being overrun by Muslim migration on the other. There is some truth behind the latter: while some Muslim ancestors of the Rohingya lived in Rakhine as early as the fifteenth century, the vast majority are descendants of British-sponsored colonial-era migrants. Census data shows that, as a proportion of the Northern Rakhine population, Muslims grew from 10 per cent to 38 per cent between 1826 and 1931 (Ware and Laoutides 2018). Coupled with living just across the border from one of the world’s highest population densities, Bangladesh, most Rakhine feel a deep sense of existential threat from the Muslims on one side and Burmanisation on the other.

Rakhine also struggle with deep poverty for everyday survival. Recent census data paints a compelling picture of extreme poverty and underdevelopment, far worse than most of the rest of the country and almost as bad as anywhere in the world. Table 17.1 shows 2014 Census data highlighting the deep poverty in contrast with Myanmar's national averages.

The World Bank created a Wealth Ranking Index for all 330 townships in Myanmar, using the census data (World Bank 2015). Over half of Rakhine’s 17 townships are amongst the 20 most impoverished in the country, and Rakhine ranked as the lowest state or region in the country. Rakhine State’s low-lying coastal topography also makes it prone to extreme weather events, including frequent cyclones and floods, adding significantly to the vulnerability of the people.

Table 17.1 2014 Census data contrasting the situation of the Rakhine with all persons in Myanmar



All persons



Improved drinking water



Improved sanitation



Electricity for lighting



Thatch roofing



Cook with firewood



Source: Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2015

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