Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?

Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading? By AUNG ZAW Published: April 24, 2013 CHIANG MAI, Thailand

VICIOUS sectarian and ethnic violence has set back the fragile political reforms introduced in Myanmar last year. As tensions flare in the majority-Buddhist country that I and other exiles still call Burma, many fear that the deadly anti-Muslim riots are no accident but the product of an effort led by army hard-liners to thwart both the reforms and Myanmar’s opening to the world.

When I returned to my homeland last year — for the first time in 24 years — I witnessed a rising wave of extreme nationalism and anti-Muslim hate speech. I heard senior army officers and government ministers express unfounded fears that Muslims would force their religion on Buddhists and try to “steal” Buddhist women. These hatemongers said that Saudi Arabia was secretly financing Muslim businesses and mosques, and that the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in the west, were being joined en masse by illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

“If we don’t deter them, the western gate will break,” one senior minister told me, referring to Arakan State, which borders Bangladesh and is home to most Rohingyas. In his view, human rights did not apply to Muslims.

These attitudes have spread deep within the populace. Last year, clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar killed at least 180 people and displaced more than 120,000, mostly Rohingyas. Last month, violence spread to central Myanmar, killing dozens and leaving more than 13,000 homeless.

Although many culprits have been suggested, I have no doubt that national officials bear some responsibility, and that the violence suggests a power struggle within the elite. Infighting between hard-line and moderate forces in the government, which took power two summers ago under the moderate general Thein Sein, is no secret. His cabinet, Parliament and the army remain dominated by holdovers from the regime of the former dictator Gen. Than Shwe. Many are resisting President Thein Sein’s reforms.

The generals who ruled the country for five decades control much of the nation’s wealth, and some are close to Chinese interests that stand to be eclipsed if Myanmar deepens economic ties to the West. The anti-Muslim violence is a useful distraction from Burmese grievances against China, whose heavy-handed economic activities have bred resentments across much of Southeast Asia.

Opposition leaders note that the violence began, suspiciously, just months after the party of the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in by-elections in April 2012. Muslims were targeted with “brutal efficiency,” according to Vijay Nambiar, then the United Nations secretary general’s special adviser on Myanmar. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said he’d received reports of “state involvement,” with the authorities “standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultranationalist Buddhist mobs.” The government has denied the allegations, but it defies belief the security forces and riot police, who ruthlessly suppressed protests in 1988 and 2007, have suddenly lost their nerve.

Last month, President Thein Sein warned “political opportunists and religious extremists” that hateful actions would “not be tolerated.” So far, however, his government has largely failed to hunt down the perpetrators. Perhaps, observers say, some perpetrators are too big to catch.

Others blame extremist monks; one of their most charismatic leaders, U Wirathu, has been called “the Burmese Bin Laden” because of his video sermons urging attacks on Muslims and boycotts of their businesses. His hateful incitement goes unchecked, and photographs on social media sites have even shown him receiving alms from hard-liners.

The sowers of hate have rich soil in which to work, but it wasn’t always so.

Muslims began arriving in Burma as traders and mercenaries in the 13th century and lived alongside Buddhists in relative peace for centuries. In the 19th century, under the reformist King Mindon, mosques were built and thousands of Muslims served in Burmese infantry and artillery divisions. Mindon even helped build a hostel in Mecca for Burmese Muslims making the pilgrimage, or hajj.

The seeds of sectarian conflict date from British rule, which started in southern Burma. Indian immigrants flocked there after the first Anglo-Burmese War, from 1824 to 1826. Later, after two more wars that made Burma a province of colonial India, riots erupted, targeted at Indian Muslims who had come to dominate low-skill jobs and money-lending. In some of the worst clashes, in 1938, hundreds of Muslims and Buddhists were killed, and mosques were destroyed.

Nevertheless, Muslims achieved prominence as student activists, politicians, army officers, civil servants, scholars and teachers. U Razak, a Muslim cabinet minister, was assassinated alongside the independence leader Aung San — Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father — in 1947. But the situation for Muslims worsened after the military seized power in 1962.

The regime sought to impose ethnic purity by marginalizing minorities (ethnic Burmans make up only two-thirds of the population) and non-Buddhists. Eventually, even traditional Buddhists were marginalized, as dictators employed a grotesque parody of their religion to manipulate the masses. The leaders portrayed themselves as devout, but showed no compassion in brutally repressing minorities and dissidents.

Today’s Buddhist extremists are the legacy of this policy. They are everywhere: on the streets and in Parliament, wearing military fatigues, business suits and monks’ robes. Some monasteries have become breeding grounds for extreme nationalism. Many senior monks are corrupt, including those in the state-sponsored Buddhist council, the Sangha.

President Thein Sein and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, former rivals, share some responsibility for the violence and have a legal and moral duty to act. Freed after more than a decade under house arrest, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of Parliament, has called for the rule of law, but this is not enough. To be as respected as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, she must explicitly condemn the bloodshed against Rohingyas, Kachin and other minorities and criticize the police and security forces for their negligence and complacency. Newspapers, newly freed from censorship, must cease their jingoistic sloganeering and assume the responsibilities that come with liberty.

Machete-wielding monks and militants, implicitly granted a license to kill, have been a blot on our nation and the government’s recent commitment to change. If President Thein Sein does not move quickly to stop the bloodshed, a historic opportunity for peace — and acceptance for Myanmar in the community of nations — will be lost.


Aung Zaw is the founding editor of the Irrawaddy Publishing Group, a news organization run by Burmese journalists, with headquarters in Thailand.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 25, 2013, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?.

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