By Kyaw Win in Asia Times
This month’s tragic anti-Muslim violence in Mandalay has again revealed that dark forces are alive and well in Myanmar. The violence left two dead and many injured, causing damage to property and generating a climate of fear in the country’s cultural and historic capital.
In the aftermath of the violence, the government has moved to crack down on hate speech but has also warned the media against making statements that could destabilize national security, saying that “action will be taken against those who threaten state stability.”
Tellingly, however, no action has been taken against those responsible for triggering the Mandalay violence by spreading false rumors on social media, while journalists reporting on the riots have already been threatened with violence. In addition, some observers have noted that the violence has also had a secondary effect- it has successfully distracted public interest from a signature campaign calling for amendment to the 2008 Constitution.
Such patterns are finally leading more and more analysts to ask critical questions about the nature of recent anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and the real motivations behind it. Outside of Myanmar, reporting has been less critical, with some major media wires referring to the violence as ‘sectarian’.
Such inaccurate diagnosis is not new, as international diplomatic and public opinion circles have tended to portray Myanmar’s anti-Muslim violence as an unfortunate social consequence of transition from authoritarianism to democracy. In this view, it is the uncertainty of transition and the new freedom of expression that have given rise to fear of the Muslim minority and ultra-nationalist Buddhist extremism.
This definition, however, is misleading and has resulted in significant confusion both about the form of violence in question as well as its root cause. Indeed, from the point of view of many Myanmar Muslims, it appears to be a case of applying a perfectly sensible theory to the wrong context.
Such misconceptions not only ignore the reality of decades-long persecution of Muslims in the country, but they also absolve authorities of their historical responsibility for manufacturing, endorsing and permitting such violence, both directly and indirectly.
They also ignore the role played by Myanmar’s generals and their cronies in manufacturing Burman-Buddhist nationalist ideology and institutionalizing a culture of fear and distrust of minorities, including the Muslim community. Anti-Muslim violence is, in fact, not a new phenomenon, and has been stirred by the military and its proxies since 1981.
The misdiagnosis also ignores the fact that the military deliberately designed the 2008 constitution to maintain sufficient power to protect their interests and have historically exploited identity as a tool to divide and control the country’s diverse population.
It also ignores the reality that many institutions, including some of Myanmar’s Buddhist monasteries, have long been infiltrated by certain military actors and have served as sites for organizing support for the military and their vision of nationalism.
That much of the violence has been carried out by mobs that also involve ordinary people does not mean that it is purely a social phenomenon free from any political involvement. Indeed, this form of violence is neither new nor apolitical, as campaigns to spread public fear against Muslims and the mobilization of pogroms have been consistently carried out by Myanmar’s military and their proxies throughout the decades of military dictatorship.
The reality is that the current anti-Muslim violence is sign of continuity with the past, rather than a break with it.
Mask of reform
President Thein Sein’s government is not the first to employ divide and rule tactics through a variety of proxies, manipulating religion and ethnicity as a means of maintaining power.
In the 1960 general election, Prime Minister U Nu published in his manifesto a promise to declare Buddhism as the state religion if elected. As a result, he won a landslide election victory.
Thein Sein’s government now appears to be using this old tactic to kill three birds with one stone- to divert public attention from Chinese interests, to avoid enacting constitutional amendments that would allow opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the country’s next president and to attract voters ahead of the 2015 elections.
Since Thein Sein took office in 2010, he has faced three major challenges: public protests against Chinese projects, public protests to amend the 2008 constitution and public support for Suu Kyi. These challenges have coincided with the re-emergence with anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar. That can hardly be a coincidence.
Public opposition to mega-projects, particularly those backed by China, has grown since Thein Sein took office. While he won praise for suspending the Chinese mega-dam project in Kachin State in 2011, this was short-lived.
In August 2012, police used white phosphorus against peaceful demonstrators, including monks and villagers at the Letpadaung copper mine. Another major Chinese project is the Shwe gas pipeline, which starts near Kyauk Pyu Township, Rakhine State and provides an important alternative route for China to much-needed energy resources should access through either the Malacca Strait or the South China Sea be blocked in a future conflict.
The second challenge is the growing public demand to amend the 2008 constitution, which many in Myanmar view as deeply flawed, undemocratic and designed by the junta to maintain the power of the army. Since early 2012, activists have been raising public awareness against the constitution and several public mass gatherings were organized to protest against the constitution and demand its amendment.
The third challenge is the outcome of 2012 by-election, which placed the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on the horns of a dilemma. Although Thein Sein successfully convinced the international community to recognize him as a reformist, even receiving a peace award from the International Crisis Group, his party has not yet convinced his country’s own voters.
On the contrary, members of the USDP are well known for their record of corruption and it is not surprising that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory at the 2012 by-election. The poll result was alarming for the ruling party and has created anxiety about the upcoming general election in 2015. The ruling party and its military backers may have thus considered applying political tactics that had already been tried and tested.
As the government came under increasing pressure from these multiple challenges, a new wave of anti-Muslim violence emerged. Violence broke out in Rakhine State in June and October 2012 where Rohingya and Kaman Muslims were targeted.
Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have historically been at their highest in Rakhine, with ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Rohingya occurring in 1942, 1978 and 1991, making it an easy target for igniting anti-Muslim violence. But anti-Muslim mobilization was not limited to Rakhine and was soon followed by hate-speech campaigns in Karen State at the end of 2012 that spread to other parts of the country. In March 2013, anti-Muslim pogroms erupted in Meiktila in central Myanmar.
Government and crony-controlled media have also played a dangerous role by portraying Rohingya as intruders from Bangladesh and Islam as a threat to Buddhism. They have succeeded in obscuring real problems such as land grabbing by the army, civil war and the use of rape as a weapon against minorities. The majority of Buddhists are unaware that they are being brainwashed by the powerful cronies’ media.
It is highly likely that many extremist Buddhist monks are agents of Myanmar’s army and part of a vast propaganda machine. In a context where monks are the most revered figures in society, this strategy has proven highly effective and faces almost no opposition. Those who have spoken out against radical monks have been intimidated.
During the crisis, the inflammatory rhetoric of Thein Sein and his spokesperson Major Zaw Htay received strong support from Buddhist extremists. In a meeting with the head of UNHCR in July 2012, Thein Sein denied the existence of the Rohingyas, stating that they are the illegal immigrants and should be sent to third countries or kept in concentration camps as refugees. His comments have directly put the lives of Rohingya into great danger, encouraged hatred against them and allowed the extremists to target them without condemnation by the wider public.
During a recent attack on Rohingyas, Zaw Htay posted provocative anti-Rohingya propaganda on his Facebook account in Burmese. Exercising scare tactics, he used the Rohingya Solidarity Organization, an organization known to be almost defunct for several decades, as a scarecrow, claiming that RSO members had crossed into Myanmar to invade Rakhine State and threaten the lives of Buddhists. He also warned opposition parties and critics not to oppose government policy towards the Rohingya on the basis of human rights.
Anti-Muslim hate campaigns led by the radical 969 movement, including those led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu, have played a significant role in expanding the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya into generalized anti-Muslim violence across the country. U Wirathu has traveled across Myanmar giving anti-Muslim speeches without restriction and expanded an extremist network known as the Race and Faith Defense League, (Ma Ba Tha).
The biased judiciary, meanwhile, systematically grants impunity to the hate instigators, encouraging further attacks on Muslims. In return, these extremists promote the ruling party as a defender of Buddhism and Buddhist interests. Ma Ba Tha also largely opposes the amendment of the 2008 constitution, particularly the section 59(F) that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because she was married to a now deceased foreigner.
A public declaration of anti-Muslim persecution was made on September 10, 2012 after a meeting between monks from all Buddhist sects in Karen State organized by the Alliance of Buddhism Custodians at Mae Baung Monastery in the state capital Hpa-an.
The declaration was mainly intended to segregate Muslims from social and economic activities, including a drive to boycott Muslim-owned shops. In December 2012, the alliance declared it would fine anyone who breached the order and members of Ma Ba Tha began monitoring Muslim shops to implement the order.
The declaration openly challenges the rule of law and yet in spite of this there has not been a single response from Thein Sein’s government. The President did not fail, however, to swiftly issue a statement defending U Wirathu when Time magazine published an edition with the monk on the front cover calling him ‘the face of Buddhist terror’.
Tolerance of anti-Muslim violence was also apparent during the Meiktila pogroms in March 2013. Victims said that when police were requested to protect Muslims from deadly attacks they responded that orders were not given to stop the violent mobs. The mystery in that instance is who held the authority to give the orders and why these officials would allow the mobs to target Muslims.
At the same time, the organized manner in which the mobs targeted Muslims reveals that at least some among them were well-trained to carry out heinous crimes against humanity, such as the chopping and burning alive of 28 small children at an Islamic orphanage.
So far anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim campaigns have successfully diverted public attention from many issues: Chinese projects, land grabbing, the civil war in Kachin State, corruption, dubious multi-billion dollar property holdings by high-ranking generals, and calls to amend the controversial 2008 constitution.
Undoubtedly, the military will plan their every strategy carefully and execute every move deliberately. The result of the 2012 by-election could be used as a parameter to measure the USDP’s chance of victory in 2015. The stakes are high, raising the potential for more distractive anti-Muslim mobilization, persecution and violence in the run-up to the polls.
While the international community invests millions in government institutions such as the Myanmar Peace Center, more must be done to hold the government accountable for the role it has played in supporting organizations and movements responsible for inciting hatred and violence. Allowing these deadly and divisive trends to continue is morally wrong and threatens to unleash new cycles of fear, violence and vengeance that will undermine the prospects of all of Myanmar’s people and jeopardize stability across the wider region.
Kyaw Win is a Burmese Muslim scholar and human rights activist living in London.
(Copyright: 2014 Kyaw Win)