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A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
A Dangerous Resurgence of Communal Violence in Myanmar
Favourites of 2017: International Crisis Group on Myanmar
Favourites of 2017: International Crisis Group on Myanmar
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

Favourites of 2017: International Crisis Group on Myanmar

Originally published in Lowy Institute

Looking back at 2017, Australia's Lowy Institute and contributors to its Lowy Interpreter website offer a selection of their favourite articles, books, films and TV programs of the year. This post, written by independent researcher Elliot Brennan, is part of the Favourites of 2017 debate thread and praises the role of Crisis Group's research in and analytical reports about Myanmar.

In a year of such mud and murk in Myanmar, far too little commentary has been well informed, balanced or timely.

Myanmar’s ballooning Facebook effect, which in 2015 emboldened many to vote in Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory, had a more sinister influence in the proliferation of hate speech in 2017. This ultimately led to conditions for what appears to have become the most deadly few months in modern Myanmar’s history.

There were few sources of consistently accurate and balanced information in the immensely emotional environment in which Myanmar exists for among news media, rights activists and too many casual analysts. That is an indictment on the state of commentary and the susceptibility to hyperbolic and emotive social media. Moreover, it has been wholly destructive in finding the solutions that such thorny problems need.

International Crisis Group has consistently cut through this echo chamber. Their nuanced and balanced reports on Myanmar have been a bedrock in a sea of false, misleading or downright dangerous reporting and advocacy from all sides. To their credit, the timely papers by ICG on the situation in Rakhine state, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, as well as Myanmar’s politics more generally, have proved distressingly prophetic. The reports are essential reading for anyone wanting to comment on Myanmar’s politics or the devastating events that have unfolded this year.

In 2018, we will no doubt need to find more oracles of balance and considered wisdom, lest Facebook and other more intentionally malign actors gobble up more of the hard-fought successes in the region and beyond.