Recent communal violence in Myanmar has underscored the risks that unresolved ethnic and religious issues represent to the long-term sustainability of recent political and economic reforms. While the former military regime is to blame for perpetuating ethnic and religious bigotry, many of those military officers-turned-politicians together with the democratic opposition now have an opportunity to reshape these crucial relations.
The violence that erupted in central Myanmar town of Meiktila on March 20 represented the first large-scale anti-Muslim riots outside of Rakhine State since 2001. Mosques, homes and shops were burnt and destroyed in an orgy of violence that left at least 42 people dead, according to official statistics. Scores more were seriously injured and thousands have been left homeless.
A state of emergency was declared in Meiktila and several surrounding townships on March 22, an executive decision that brought the army in to restore order. Despite this, rioting spread to several other townships in Mandalay Division and Bago Division to the south. The violence continued until 29 March after homes and mosques were burned in Tatkon, Yamethin, Lewei, Gyobingauk, Okpo, Minhla, Monyo and Padigon townships.
The riots followed weeks of violence last year in western Rakhine State that resulted in over 150 deaths, mostly Muslim Rohingyas. So far the violence in Meiktila and elsewhere in central Myanmar appears unrelated to the unrest in Rakhine State. Several commentators, drawing on reports some of the perpetrators were not residents in the areas attacked, have however suggested the violence may have been fanned by outside actors.
The role of Buddhist monks has been more visible. In recent months, a number of prominent monks have grown increasingly vocal in their anti-Muslim views. The role of the Buddhist clergy in the violence in Meiktila, where robed monks were photographed brandishing weapons and committing acts of violence, raises the risk that the pogroms spread further due to monks’ strong leadership roles in Myanmar society.
Significantly, the recent violence in Meiktila and elsewhere in central Myanmar was aimed at the country’s broad Muslim community. Myanmar’s Muslims make up at least 4% of the population, representing over 2 million people. Many live in cities and towns but a significant number of Myanmar’s Muslims reside in villages across the rural countryside.
Discrimination and violence towards Muslims is not new to Myanmar, also known as Burma. Anti-Indian feelings began to grow under British rule as Buddhists felt they were losing out to Indians, many of whom were Muslims, brought in by the British for administrative purposes. Many others followed to set up businesses, work as laborers, or moved into extant Muslim villages to take up farming in the country.
Riots periodically broke out, most notably in 1930 when the return of striking Indian dockworkers put replacement Burman stevedores out of work. The rioting that ensued took on anti-Muslim overtones and spread to a number of areas across the country. Another riot in 1938 aimed at the British colonial government used violence against Muslims as a proxy. Fears of possible ethnic Burman reprisals in the wake of Japan’s invasion during World War II caused tens of thousands of Indians to flee to India.
The xenophobia behind the 1962 military coup that ushered in almost five decades of consecutive military rule served to reinforce negative perceptions of the Muslim community. Businesses were nationalized and hundreds of thousands of South Asians, most Muslims, were forced to flee to East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. Over time, the terms for Indian and Muslim populations in Myanmar became almost synonymous in the local vernacular.
After 1962, Muslims were often equated in government propaganda with colonial rule and the exploitation of Myanmar by foreigners. While some Muslims have lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years, many others arrived during British colonial rule. Most of Myanmar’s Muslims descend at least partly from South Asians, though through the generations there has been a great deal of intermarriage so that many of the Muslims in Myanmar today are of mixed ethnicity.
The vast majority of Muslims in Myanmar were born there, as were several generations of their ancestors. Because they speak Burmese, most consider themselves to be Myanmar Muslims when asked. Government propaganda, however, has stirred anti-Muslim feelings across the country, with various ethnic groups encouraged to look down on Muslims as uneducated, usurping foreigners.
Under the nationalities laws put in place following the 1962 coup, Muslims found it difficult to obtain citizenship cards. The lack of legal recognition has made it difficult for them to travel, enroll in government schools and conduct business. As effective non-citizens, Muslims are not permitted to join the military or hold positions in the civil service. A large number of Muslims are landless and work as traders or day laborers.
These xenophobic feelings have often been exploited by the country’s military rulers in order to relieve periods of political, economic or social pressures and perpetuate divide and rule tactics for controlling the populace. Pogroms against ethnic Rohingya Muslims occurred in the late 1970s and again in 1991-1992.
In 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out across central Myanmar where several mosques, homes, and shops were destroyed. In this violence, too, monks were blamed as instigators, although at that time many saw the hidden hand of the regime behind the violence. Then, there were widespread accusations of military intelligence agents donning the saffron robes of monks. One theory was that the violence was stirred in reaction to the Taliban’s destruction of historically important, massive Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Islam was often viewed as a threat by the military regime, in part because it could not be influenced in the same way the state controls Buddhism. The military gradually tightened restrictions on Islam during the late 1990s and early 2000s, including new requirements that official permission must be sought to hold religious ceremonies and celebrate special occasions. The number of mosques were restricted and even the type of renovation work on existing ones was restricted to the interiors. The activities of religious leaders and religious groups were also closely monitored.
Since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011, his government’s reform drive has marginally eased those restrictions. While under authoritarian rule most Muslims were essentially non-political and tried to keep a low profile, reforms have given some in the Muslim community newfound political voice, including over the internet. However, the same relaxation on previous restrictions on freedom of expression has fueled often incendiary rhetoric from ultra-nationalist Buddhists.
There remains some suspicion that the government, or at least retrograde elements in the military, may be behind the recent anti-Muslim violence. In Meiktila, the attacks on the town’s Muslim quarter were methodical, suggesting to some a certain degree of advanced planning. However, the organization is most likely to have come from ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups with no association with the military.
On the surface, there seems little for the government or the military to gain from instigating the violence. Hardliners in the military could certainly use the violence as a pretext for re-exerting direct control but so far that seems an unlikely prospect considering the potential tremendous cost in international opinion, economic development and uncontrolled civil unrest across the country.
Thein Sein has won widespread international praise for his government’s reform efforts, which seem poised to unleash a foreign investment-driven economic boom. So far the military has largely been able to escape criticism for their past abuses while quietly keeping a hand on power through its allocation of 25% of the seats in parliament and membership on a number of governmental bodies. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander of Myanmar’s military, was confident enough to declare at the March 27 Armed Forces Day parade that the military would maintain its “leading political role.”
Rather than stirring communal violence, the military has much to gain from reshaping public opinion and diffusing religious tensions before they escalate into the sectarian violence seen recently in Rakhine State and central Burma. So far neither the military, government or parliament has taken the lead on the issue.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party have also been largely silent on the Muslim issue. Suu Kyi was criticized last year when she paid scant attention to the plight of the Rohingya. Her once irreproachable reputation has been dented lately for seeming to be too close to the former generals who until recently held her under house arrest.
As the long-time leader of the democratic opposition and a seeming supporter of ethnic rights, Suu Kyi has the most powerful and moral voice in the country. But any solution to widespread anti-Muslim attitudes will have to start with reforms of the police and judiciary. The police have come in for particularly harsh criticism both in the recent violence and last year in Rakhine State for standing by while mobs ran amok destroying Muslim quarters.
Thein Sein’s nationally televised statement on March 28 warned ”political opportunists and religious extremists” that ”their efforts will not be tolerated” was a strong if not belated step in the right direction. The president couched his message with threats of use of force and prosecution ”to the fullest extent of the law” of instigators.
However, it is unclear how Thein Sein can make good on his rule-by-law threats with a woefully inadequate police force, a military with a long history of shooting rather than protecting unarmed civilians and a judiciary that has little if any independence. Myanmar’s deteriorating race relations and wider reform hopes thus hang in the balance.
Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at email@example.com