Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency
Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar

Over the past week there has been more inter-communal violence in Myanmar, this time in the country’s heartland – with the worst incidents in the town of Meiktila, between Mandalay and the capital Naypyitaw. The incident started with a brawl in a gold shop and rapidly escalated into large-scale Buddhist-Muslim clashes that left nearly 50 people dead and over twelve thousand displaced, according to the latest government figures. Other credible estimates put the number of displaced even higher.

The Muslim community was the hardest hit, as it has tended to be in previous such clashes. More than three-quarters of those displaced were Muslims. Many of their homes were destroyed, and a number of religious buildings (mosques and madrassas) were burned down. Although a state of emergency and a visible presence of the security forces on the streets has restored calm, it will be weeks or months before the displaced can rebuild their homes and lives. And, given that most have lost everything – and are in fear of further attacks – there is uncertainty about how many of them would have the means or the confidence to return to their former neighbourhoods.

For communities that have lived together for generations, the speed and scale of the violence comes as a shock. Yet such incidents are not unheard of in Myanmar: serious Buddhist-Muslim clashes occurred in central parts of the country in 2001, triggered in part by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and calls by firebrand Myanmar monks for the destruction of mosques in retaliation. Serious riots also occurred in the 1930s and 1960s, and smaller-scale incidents have occurred with some regularity.

There is much speculation about what is behind the current violence. Feedback from witnesses is contradictory: some say they did not recognize the perpetrators and believe that they were from outside the community; others say they recognized their neighbours among the attackers. It is clear that there are some agents provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country – including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims. Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighbourhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements. At the same time, there is scant evidence to support claims that the violence was orchestrated to further some ill-defined aim of alleged hardliners unhappy with the rapid reforms taking place in the country.

In fact, it is not unusual for countries emerging from authoritarianism to experience inter-communal strife. Following the violence in Rakhine State last year, Crisis Group warned of the risk of Buddhist-Muslim clashes spreading to the many other parts of the country with Muslim minority populations. A previous blog post also looked at comparisons and possible lessons Myanmar could draw from the communal violence that rocked post-Soeharto Indonesia.

There is a real risk that violence could spread. Already, there have been incidents in other towns near to Meiktila, as well as elsewhere in the country, though none so deadly as the clashes in Meiktila. There is nervousness and many rumours are circulating in the commercial capital, Yangon, but no serious violence has occurred there so far. But if these incidents do continue to spread, and escalate, they could do enormous damage to the country, beyond the immediate human costs: by tearing Myanmar’s social fabric in ways that will be difficult to repair; damaging the transition process currently underway by taking the focus of government away from the other very challenging political, economic and peace-building reforms; and undermining domestic and international confidence in the future of the country.

What should be done? Restoring calm and reducing the chances of future incidents must be addressed on three levels:

  • The government must do much better at addressing the problem. In order to limit further violence, perpetrators must be swiftly and visibly brought to justice. While the Meiktila violence may have caught the authorities by surprise, given the possible emerging pattern of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence officials now need to be prepared. Much more rapid and robust police responses are required. These incidents have shown that the police force does not have the capacity to respond effectively – because police do not have adequate training and rules of engagement, because the mostly Buddhist force is often seen as partisan, and because there is a lack of the kind of community policing that would provide the intelligence needed to give early warnings.
     
  • Similarly, religious leaders must come out forcefully at this time with messages of calm and peace. In particular, there is a need for the Buddhist Sangha to be proactive: too often, Buddhist monks are heard preaching words of intolerance, or caveating their calls for peace with explanations for the violence based on prejudice. At a time of bloodshed there is no room for moral ambiguity.
     
  • Now is the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion, rather than just following it. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi, as the most powerful political and moral voice in the country, must be prepared to go further than she has been willing to up till now. She has said that she does not want to take sides in inter-communal conflicts – yet she must be prepared to vocally and unambiguously take the side of peace and tolerance.
Impact Note / Asia

WSJ: Asia’s New Insurgency

Crisis Group’s Myanmar report on 15 December 2016 revealed the emergence of a game-changing Muslim insurgency in the country’s Rakhine state. In this Editorial, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page introduced the report to readers as evidence of how Burma’s abuse of the Rohingya Muslims has created violent backlash.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal on 19 December 2016 under the headline Asias New Insurgency.

Even as Burma has made dramatic progress toward democracy and pluralism, the military has waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The government has forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps and prevented them from receiving aid.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled abroad, many losing their lives in the process. Another million are still in western Burma’s Rakhine state, but they have difficulty finding work because the government stripped them of their citizenship in the 1980s.

As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

Now this immoral policy has created a violent backlash. The world’s newest Muslim insurgency pits Saudi-backed Rohingya militants against Burmese security forces. As government troops take revenge on civilians, they risk inspiring more Rohingya to join the fight.

A report last week from the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes the new insurgent force that carried out a well-organized October attack on three border-police bases in Rakhine, killing nine police officers and setting off reprisals from the military.

Called Harakah al-Yaqin, Arabic for “the Faith Movement,” the group answers to a committee of Rohingya emigres in Mecca and a cadre of local commanders with experience fighting as guerrillas overseas. Its recent campaign – which continued into November with IED attacks and raids that killed several more security agents – has been endorsed by fatwas from clerics in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Emirates and elsewhere.

Rohingyas have “never been a radicalized population,” ICG notes, “and the majority of the community, its elders and religious leaders have previously eschewed violence as counterproductive.” But that is changing fast. Harakah al-Yaqin was established in 2012 after ethnic riots in Rakhine killed some 200 Rohingyas and is now estimated to have hundreds of trained fighters.

The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

The military response to Harakah al-Yaqin is making Rohingya life even more desperate across northern Rakhine. The ICG cites “reports of suspects shot on sight, burning of many houses, looting of property and seizure or destruction of food stocks – as well as of women and girls raped.” Satellite photos show at least 1,500 buildings recently burned, while aid workers and journalists have been kept away. Some 30,000 Rohingyas are newly displaced.

Burma’s government is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate whose party swept last year’s landmark election, but she governs under a constitution imposed in 2008 by the old military junta. Its antidemocratic provisions bar her or any other elected official from controlling the military or the defense and border ministries, so last year’s election had little effect on the Rohingya. The government decision to disenfranchise all Rohingyas before the vote likely drove more recruits into the insurgents’ ranks.

Can Ms. Suu Kyi prevail on the military to exercise restraint and, in the longer term, begin bringing the stateless and desperate Rohingya into Burma’s national life? Does she want to? So far she’s done little beside speaking with foreign leaders and appointing former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a commission of inquiry. Without significant changes in state policy, Rakhine’s incipient insurgency could grow into a jihadist threat that spreads beyond Burma’s borders.