Government and governance, Law, National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

20 July 2016

Silence from the government in the face of escalating anti-Muslim attacks only adds fuel to the fire and undermines aspirations for a peaceful future in Myanmar, Daniel P Sullivan writes.

The recent destruction of a Muslim prayer hall in central Myanmar, and the burning of a mosque in the north, mark a rekindling of tensions that have been smouldering since the first large-scale attacks against Muslims in the country in 2012.

Those attacks, initially sparked by the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in June and followed by more coordinated attacks targeting Muslims in October, ended with 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Muslims. The timing of these most recent attacks, just as the new Aung San Suu Kyi-led government reached its first 100 days in power, is an inauspicious reminder of the dangers of not addressing those hate-driven dynamics.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim feeling has led to violence that has displaced tens of thousands of people and led to almost 300 deaths. Most of those affected have been Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar who face unique prejudices and persecution as the government fails to recognise them as citizens. But anti-Muslim sentiment and violence has also affected non-Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state and spread to affect disparate parts of the country, from Okkan in the northwest to Lashio in the northeast and just outside the country’s largest city Yangon in the south. In 2013, anti-Muslim attacks in the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar led to the deaths of at least 40 people, including many students. Riots in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, in 2014 led to the deaths of one Buddhist and one Muslim man.

The opening of the military-dominated government to reforms in 2011 has led to many notable changes and the first civilian-led government in Myanmar in half a century. But it has also opened the way for dangerous anti-Muslim rhetoric, spread by a group of opportunistic, ultra-nationalist monks.

More on this: Revisiting country risk for Myanmar | Trevor Wilson

While a sense of Buddhist Burmese nationalism is not new, the level of organisation, influence, and resulting violence is. Monks like Ashin Wirathu have travelled the country dispersing DVDs and hate-propaganda and giving vitriolic sermons that paint Muslims as an existential threat to Buddhist Burmese religion and culture. They formed the “969 Movement” which organised boycotts of Muslim businesses and later a more sophisticated Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion or Ma Ba Tha, which has drafted and successfully pushed through Race and Religion Protection Laws that largely target Muslims.

In past elections, Muslims, including Rohingya, were allowed to vote and even take office. But in 2015 hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly Rohingya, who had voted in the last election were disenfranchised and sitting Muslim members of Parliament were barred from re-election. And it is not only the more extremist voices that have supported this trend. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy did not field a single Muslim candidate.

The alarming silence of the country’s leaders has been just as loud as the vitriolic rhetoric of the ultra-nationalist monks. In the lead up to the elections, sympathisers often cited the need for Suu Kyi to balance getting elected with taking unpopular stances. Speaking out for Muslims was described as the third rail of Burmese politics. If Suu Kyi wanted to gain the power to change things, they claimed, she first needed to get elected. But three months into the new government, little has changed.

Perhaps most troubling is the lack of accountability for the recent attacks, a sad continuation of the old military-led government’s policies. Of the large mob involved in the destruction in Kachin state, only five individuals have been arrested. No arrests were made in Bago where a local official said, “If we take action on people, the situation will be bad.” But the situation is clearly already bad and ongoing tensions threaten to flare up in new bouts of violence. Impunity will only further fuel the current dynamics.

Aung San Suu Kyi has the ability to tackle these tensions. Her resounding election victory and widespread good standing give her room to manoeuvre. And she would not be alone in acting. A few brave local civil society actors have spoken out and several interfaith harmony efforts are at work.

Suu Kyi is not only the effective leader of the country, she is also the head of a Myanmar Human Rights Commission that is investigating the recent attacks. Perhaps she will continue to calculate the need to be silent on controversial topics in order to make headway on others. But she need not fully revive the strong appeals of her human rights icon days. Simply standing for accountability in cases like Bago and Kachin would speak volumes. Failure to do so will only allow the voices of hate to grow louder.

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Sullivan, Daniel P. 2016. "Violence Threatens New Myanmar - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.