x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Myanmar needs a concerted way to respond to riots

The riots could prompt Ms Suu Kyi and the authorities in Myanmar to start a campaign to educate the citizenry about the self-defeating nature of sectarian violence.

One of the great democratic success stories of recent years was engulfed in flames last week, as Myanmar's Muslims faced an outburst of sectarian violence.

Reports in the news media tell of people dragged from their homes and burnt alive, of Buddhist monks leading mobs to destroy mosques and of thousands of people marched to refugee camps where they may now find themselves trapped.

The riots that started in the town of Meiktila, and that have since spread to townships across the country, are a reminder, once again, that even the most positive-seeming transitions can carry dangerous consequences.

In this case, the easing of censorship and police repression in Myanmar have given rise to an ugly breed of fanatical Buddhist nationalism, fanned by the nascent spread of social media.

The dynamic is familiar. As the certainties and terror of military dictatorship give way to democracy and its mad scramble for power, voices of hatred cut through the confusion and offer an appealingly simple narrative and a focus for discontent.

And Myanmar is, unfortunately, devoid of any sort of functioning education system or of a tradition of respect for human rights that might act as a brake on this deterioration.

The security forces were at a loss as to how to respond to the beginning of rioting. It is a cruel irony that a government that felt no compunction in massacring peaceful protesters a few years ago now finds itself unsure how to control a rampaging mob.

Confusion is partly to blame: the police in Meiktila come from the same force that beat back environmental protests against a nearby copper mine in November, using white phosphorus grenades that severely injured several monks. That triggered a political storm, which may explain why the police were reportedly reluctant to make the same mistake this time, and had no idea how to control a crowd with less violent methods.

The police passivity also stems from the lack of direction coming from the country's political leaders. President Thein Sein has vowed to make "utmost efforts" to halt the violence and incitement of racial hatred, but his concerns are primarily to protect the billions of dollars in planned foreign investment that he and his government have been negotiating since it began taking tentative steps towards reform, two years ago.

There have been hardly any attempts to arrest the instigators of violence or to counter the pernicious anti-Muslim propaganda that has spread in recent months, not least because many within parliament share the racism towards Muslim ethnic groups that is driving the pogroms.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of all of this has been the reluctance of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to make a clear statement condemning the perpetrators of the violence.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was regularly granted the epithet "Gandhian" during her years of determined opposition to the military regime. But few would seriously apply that term in reference to her any more.

When pressed, members of her National League for Democracy say she fears the loss of Burmese voters's support ahead of the 2015 election if she condemns the anti-Muslim movement too strongly - a position that some would see as complicity in the violence.

One group of activists has shown that an alternative is possible. The 88 Generation - a group that formed during the student uprising of 1988 and whose leaders spent decades in prison - sent its leaders to Meiktila almost immediately when the trouble started.

They condemned the actions of the instigators and the inaction of the police. They toured the area, meeting community leaders and calling for peace.

This should have been the obvious response for Ms Suu Kyi and any politician with an interest in the stability of the country and the security of its civilians.

There are rumours that the 88 Generation may float a political party this year, a move which, on the evidence of the past week, is urgently needed.

None of the violence is sudden or unexpected. It follows brutal violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims in the south-west of the country last year that killed at least 180 people and displaced over 120,000.

A growing and increasingly powerful extremist fringe within the Buddhist monkhood has promoted a movement to drive out Muslims and boycott their businesses across the country through their "969" campaign (the numbers refer to Buddhist teachings).

It should be noted that this is partly a response to the Muslim community's own "786" (a Qu'ranic reference) campaign that encourages them to shop only at Muslim stores.

The situation of the Rohingya can be improved through legal means. Amending the 1982 Citizenship Act, that denies them statehood, is the obvious first step in that direction.

But the recent riots represent a more complex challenge. They are tearing apart communities in the heartland of the country. Perhaps this will finally shake the authorities and Ms Suu Kyi into concerted action against the instigators and to begin a determined campaign to educate the citizenry about the self-defeating nature of sectarian violence.

Already, the riots are supporting claims by the military that they are the only force capable of holding the nation together. Such claims have caused Myanmar enormous misery in the past.


Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia.

On Twitter: @EricWRandolph