Mar 30th 2013
WHEN Myanmar’s newly installed president and former soldier, Thein Sein, kick-started the country’s political transition two years ago, he hoped to usher in a clean and steady advance towards some sort of orderly democracy. Now, however, things are starting to turn out rather differently.
Unwittingly, it seems, in relaxing decades of tight army control over the country, Mr Thein Sein and his reforming ministers have breathed life into some of the uglier forces in Myanmar society that authoritarian rule kept suppressed, notably sectarian violence. (In the past, when such violence took place, it was the prerogative of the armed forces to conduct it.)
On March 20th, provoked by a small argument in a gold shop, a Buddhist mob rampaged through the central Burmese town of Meiktila, killing over 30 people and injuring about another 70. The Buddhists burned mosques and Muslim homes before marching many of the terrified survivors out of town. The intercommunal violence has so far displaced over 12,000 people.
Meiktila, between Mandalay and the new capital of Naypyidaw, was put under a curfew, together with three nearby townships. But the violence quickly spread to other areas, creeping always closer to Yangon, the old capital and commercial centre. On March 25th mosques and houses in Okpho and Gyonbingauk townships were attacked, just 125 miles (200km) north. In Yangon itself rumours of imminent and co-ordinated attacks by Buddhist youths have swept through Muslim districts for weeks. People have been stockpiling rice and other food, anticipating a prolonged siege. So far, only sporadic attacks have taken place. But Yangon is on edge, and Muslim shopkeepers lock up at the first hint of trouble.
This violence in the Burmese heartland follows on from, and is clearly inspired by, the massacres of Rohingya Muslims around Sittwe, the capital of the western state of Rakhine, that happened last year. About 180 were killed and over 100,000 Rohingyas made homeless in two bouts of ethnic cleansing. Those Rohingyas now live in squalid refugee camps, under curfew and prevented from travelling into Sittwe, let alone to anywhere else in Myanmar. Cut off from their sources of income and livelihoods, many attempt each day to flee to neighbouring countries in rickety fishing boats. Some make it, but others drown. Still more fall victim to traffickers.
In Sittwe recently, mobs of Buddhist bigots and extreme Rakhine nationalists exercised their newly gained freedoms by marching through town past the charred remains of Rohingya houses and mosques. They screamed hatred at Muslims and denounced countries such as Turkey that want to aid the helpless refugees. Buddhist monks, heroes of the 2007 “saffron revolution” that tried to unseat the old military regime, egg on the crowds and help organise the protests. This is the looking-glass world of the new Myanmar. Now it is only the once-reviled army that stands between minority Muslims and the bloodlust of Buddhist chauvinists.
In Rakhine animosity towards Muslims goes back a long way, and now that central political control is loosening, old scores are being settled. Local Rakhines regard all Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship, as illegal “Bengali” immigrants, even though Rohingyas were in Rakhine not only before the British came, but even before Burmese rule.
Elsewhere in Myanmar ethnic Burman Buddhists have always resented the descendants of Indian Muslims who arrived on the coat-tails of the British in the 19th century to take all the best jobs and, to their mind, swamp the local cultures. In the early 20th century over half of the population of the booming commercial hub of Yangon were South Asian. A British administrator, J.S. Furnivell, coined the term “plural society” to describe the extraordinary diversity of races and religions in Burma’s cities under British rule: Bengali Muslims jostled alongside Iraqi Jews and Armenian Christians.
The indigenous Buddhists, however, lost out, so the first thing the generals did when they seized power in 1962 was to exact revenge by nationalising businesses and forcing hundreds of thousands of Indians back to India or what then was East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The 2.5m people of Indian origin who remain are stigmatised and vulnerable; most have no citizenship. In this sense the Buddhist mobs are finishing off what the Burman chauvinist generals started in the 1960s. Piled on top of ancient resentments, more recent prejudices circulate via the internet and social media and feed into the ideologies of Buddhist-chauvinist groups, some of which are implicated in the Meiktila violence. So much for a plural society.
Immersed in their reform agenda, the country’s politicians, including Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy, have been taken by surprise. But even a correct response to the violence carries risks. A government commission into last year’s brutalities in Rakhine state is due to be published soon. If, as is expected, it recommends some sort of legal security for the Rohingyas, though just short of citizenship, that could spark another round of anti-Muslim rioting across the country. Mr Thein Sein and Miss Suu Kyi will need to show moral leadership in the face of Buddhist chauvinism. The alternative could be ugly.