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An invisible hand in Burma’s anti-Muslim violence?

Photo: Swe Win's Facebook

By Francis Wade
October 4, 2013

The latest bout of violence in western Burma, where the death toll currently stands at six, all of whom are Muslim, hasn’t taken many by surprise. Leaders on both sides of the political divide have mostly responded with empty phrases that appear to be aimed more at placating their critics, rather than cutting to the core problems of intolerance and exploitation of a crisis. As a result, houses belonging to Muslim families in Arakan state have once again turned to ash, and the body count slowly climbs.

The slaying of a 94-year-old woman marks a new low in the violence – largely incapacitated through old age, she hardly presented an existential threat to the Buddhist population there (NB: pages 24-25 of this Harvard report statistically debunks claims that Muslims are ‘taking over’ Arakan state). Instead her death is a classic tool of intimidation, a message to the country’s entire Muslim population that none are safe. This is only reinforced by the fact that the recent attacks in Thandwe were against Kaman Muslims, who are distinct from the Rohingya (against whom past violence in Arakan state has been targeted), who have citizenship and with whom Arakanese had enjoyed harmonious relations.

The speed with which the violence in Thandwe spread from Sunday onwards raises further suspicions about the degree of organizing going on behind the scenes. The trigger on Sunday last week was a petty argument between a Buddhist taxi driver and the leader of the Kaman Muslim Party, Kyaw Zan Hla. Word then spread round the district that Kyaw Zan Hla had ‘insulted Buddhism’; mobs then formed with surprising speed and torched a mosque and several houses. Attacks spread over the following days to villages around Thandwe, and as of Wednesday dozens of houses have been razed. A photo today from a local journalist showed a truckload of Arakanese Buddhists, all brandishing spears and swords, and all wearing red bandanas.

It took the tiniest of triggers to spark a rampage. A similar chain of events happened in April in Oakkan, when a young Muslim girl riding a bike knocked an alms bowl out of a monk’s hand. As word spread of the incident, large Buddhist mobs quickly formed and attacked a mosque and Muslim homes, eventually destroying 77 and leaving one person dead and nine injured. The month before, inhabitants of Meikhtila in Mandalay division spoke of convoys of trucks carrying ‘ousiders’ into the town as anti-Muslim violence gathered pace. Similar reports of ‘outsider’ mobs came out of Sittwe in Arakan state during last year’s rioting.

It’s easy to get conspiratorial about this, and it’s often the knee-jerk reaction of Burma observers to blame the government, or government-affiliated networks. But as well as the events listed above, the attacks on Muslims in Shan state’s Lashio in May don’t necessarily fit the picture of an upsurge of solely local public anger – a New York Times report said mobs there were heard singing Burmese nationalist songs, something that you’d be hard pressed to find any Shan person doing. Moreover, footage from the violence in Meikhtila in March showed police standing by and watching while mobs torched shops, which is consistent with local reports that security forces allowed the attacks to proceed.

Of course there’s no smoking gun in all this, no paper trail that leads all the way to the top. What President Thein Sein really makes of the miserable state of inter-religious harmony isn’t clear, though his wispy, pussyfooting responses over the past year have only sharpened the feeling that he is reluctant to put his foot down. Why? Perhaps because powerful forces close to him, who are uncomfortable with the transition in Burma, will benefit from this – particularly the military, which fears a potential waning of its influence and which can draw on these fissures to reassert its relevance. (Take the Arakanese, for instance, who were once so vehemently opposed to army presence in their state but who now ask for its protection, or prominent student activists who spent their lives fighting the army, but who now say they will join hands to repel Muslim ‘invaders’).

Moreover, is mob mentality so strong among disparate Burmese across the land that the chain of events in Sittwe last year – the speedy formation of mobs, types of weapons used, methods of destruction – can be replicated so strikingly in Mandalay division, in Shan state, and even up in Kachin state, where there’s no history of anti-Muslim hostility? And that since the Oakkan violence, the trigger needed for the attacks has in fact become weaker, and not stronger, as should be the case if the government is really tackling this?

U Win Myaing, spokesman for the Arakan state government who was interviewed by the NYT, suggests in fact that the severity of the actual event that causes these rampages is not important, but merely who is involved: “You can see in all the recent conflicts that Bengalis [reference to Muslim Rohingya] sparked the incidents. The problems always begin with them.” At the very least, by reinforcing the fear that an enemy lives among us, the government is tacitly encouraging the attacks; Win Myaing almost legitimizes them. But the eerie similarities of the nearly 10 bouts of anti-Muslim violence since June last year suggests there may be something more than merely communal violence happening here.

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