Reforms hinge on treatment of minorities
Reforms hinge on treatment of minorities
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Reforms hinge on treatment of minorities

This op-ed is also available in Burmese

Since the destruction and killing in Meiktila in March, inter-communal violence has sporadically continued, including last week in Thandwe township where at least five people were killed and more than 50 houses destroyed.

While authorities seem to have responded more quickly than before to the more recent incidents, these deadly attacks will continue without an improved response from the government and the communities in which they occur. They pose a threat to Myanmar’s nascent democracy and will not go away until everyone recognises the problem and agrees on solutions.

Without a more effective government response and a change in societal attitudes there remains the risk that violence could continue to spread. If it does, the impact on Myanmar’s transition, its people and its economy could be grave. Outside its borders, the country’s standing in the world could diminish just as it is emerging from isolation – and as the people of many nations visit Myanmar, many for the first time.

The inter-religious violence that started in northern Rakhine State in June last year spread to other parts of the country – as many had feared it might – because the authorities did not act firmly and transparently against the perpetrators. On his visit to the region last week, President U Thein Sein should have left behind a clear message to local officials: that bias, intolerance, and complicity in violence are not acceptable in the new Myanmar.

The police response in Meiktila, the largest incident outside of Rakhine State, was also inadequate. There, local security officials were unable to restrain a community angered over not only a dispute at a neighbourhood shop but also the brutal killing of a monk. With trust in law enforcement low, citizens enacted their own retribution, with fatal and potentially long-lasting consequences.

Authorities were unprepared and slow to react in this case for a number of reasons. But one contributing factor was they were chastened by the justified criticism of police overreaction at the Letpadaung mine a few months earlier. In Meiktila, by contrast, poorly trained and badly equipped officers were paralysed when a real threat to peace and stability arose in Mandalay Region. They failed to uphold the law, protect all citizens and stop perpetrators of violence regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Rather than use legal force to restrain such lawlessness, they used almost no force and exercised little authority, with deadly results.

The failure of the police happened at many levels but fixing this inadequate response starts at the top. Meiktila was a wake-up call for all the government and attitudes have begun to change – but clearly not fast enough, as the violence in Thandwe shows. The president has announced a “zero tolerance” approach to what he called “senseless, irrational behaviour”. This needs to be followed up with clear orders down the hierarchy that prioritise the protection of all people in Myanmar without the excessive use of deadly force.

In some recent incidents in Mandalay and Sagaing, the message seems to have been received. More still needs to be done and improving police capacity with better training and equipment is one important element. Outside expertise and assistance can accelerate the necessary changes.

But the answer to resolving this difficult issue can also be found in each and every town in Myanmar. This country’s Muslim community is diverse and found in all cities, most towns and many villages. Myanmar’s Muslims have long been intimately entwined with the country’s commercial life. As the people of Meiktila found, there is a high and lingering financial cost to violence when part of the commercial district of a town is destroyed. Attacking the Muslim community left Meiktila’s markets depleted, kept visitors away and cut access to the informal financial system.

Rising Burman-Buddhist nationalism and the growing influence of the monk-led “969” movement, which preaches intolerance and urges a boycott of Muslim businesses, is a dangerous combination of populism wrapped in religious respectability. The considerable frustration and anger built up during the country’s years of authoritarian rule needs to be directed away from a negative campaign focused on one of the country’s minorities and channelled toward a positive vision of a democratic, tolerant and prosperous country.

Myanmar needs to delegitimise hate speech masquerading as economic nationalism. Such language is anti-democratic, encourages violence, causes instability and undermines much-needed economic development. A society that is open, multi-ethnic and multi-religious will be one that makes the most of its limited human resources rather than encouraging the flight of people with skills, languages, capital and entrepreneurial flair.

More than any other issue, the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim population is being watched closely in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world as the country will soon host the Southeast Asian Games and then chair ASEAN. The global spotlight will be focused not just on Myanmar’s athletes, officials and diplomats but also on the still-evolving system of government and emerging political culture. The treatment of minorities is the yardstick by which the country’s democracy will be measured. The openness that has been welcomed since the creation of the civilian-led government in March 2011 is now exposing Myanmar to new levels of international scrutiny, as well as greater expectations in terms of adhering to international norms and standards for democracy, policing, human rights and rule of law.

As the athletes, officials, journalists and tourists book their tickets to visit Myanmar, an unprecedented number of foreigners will become aware of this country. Will the picture they form be positive or negative? Hundreds of thousands of people will be seeing for themselves how this country acts. Millions more will be paying attention as they watch on television.

At this time, the leadership needs to be clear and the police firm without being repressive. Political figures and religious leaders should think carefully about what they say. Single words and short sentences, as well as actions and even inaction, are being scrutinised. Even those who don’t speak out and stay silent will be noticed.

If Myanmar gets this wrong then everybody will lose out: A violent, unstable, and bigoted country is a place that no one wants to visit or invest in. If Myanmar gets it right then it will reap the rewards, not just in terms of medals, accolades, tourists and investment but with peace and stability within its borders.

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