There is no doubt that the violent attacks on Muslims in Meiktila, a garrison city in central Burma, were politically motivated. It has been a gruesome spectacle. Muslims were beaten, dragged out into the streets, doused with petrol and burned alive.
The police were slow to restore law and order. As the attackers, who were armed with knives, machetes and walkie-talkies, roamed the city, the police just stood by and watched. Some thugs allegedly pushed though police lines to attack Muslims, and still the police did little to protect them, according to eyewitnesses.
Min Ko Naing, a former student leader and prominent activist, rushed to the scene with some monks to stop the violence. At one point, a group of people involved in the attacks threatened to kill them.
When he arrived Meiktila, Min Ko Naing pleaded with the marauding mobs to stop their attacks. His words were not well received, however, and he was forced to retreat. Within hours, photos likening him to an Al Qaeda terrorist were posted on Facebook. This came after weeks of anti-Muslim vitriol filled social media sites. Clearly, there has been a very well-orchestrated campaign to vilify Muslims in Burma and discredit anyone seen as sympathetic to them.
Journalists were among those singled out for intimidation. Despite efforts to silence them, however, many said that the violence they witnessed seemed systematic and well-planned.
Several witnesses and reporters on the ground said that the killers rode around the city on motorcycles looking for Muslims to murder. Nobody made any attempt to stop them. In addition, “monks” from other parts of the country joined in the carnage, while local authorities stood idly by.
It’s hard to believe that Burma’s security forces and riot police, who have a reputation for ruthlessly suppressing protests, have suddenly lost their nerve. In 1988, they did not hesitate to gun down people who took to the streets to call for an end to military rule. And in 2007, they violently cracked down on monks without a second’s thought. So what happened in Meikhtila?
Many suspect that last week’s violence in central Burma involved the same people who took part in attacks and riots in Arakan State last year. But so far there is no evidence to support this claim. I’m more inclined to believe that masterminds behind the Meikhtila attacks are people too big to catch. The government has yet to apprehend anyone involved in the recurring spasms of violence that continue to traumatize the country.
So who organized the attacks? One theory is that hardcore elements in the establishment are behind the violence. Some speculate that they may be enemies of the Thein Sein government who want to undermine the president’s reforms. Others suggest that the malefactors may be powerful countries and businessmen who feel that they are losing out because of Burma’s new opening to the outside world.
At any rate, the clear winners here are the military, which was called in to quell the riots after Thein Sein ordered a state of emergency last Friday. In the current atmosphere, the sight of troops in the streets is almost reassuring. This has raised fears that if the situation deteriorates further, the military could take over the reins of power completely to restore law and order.
It is also clear that Burma’s Buddhists—particularly its monks—have suffered an enormous black eye due to the actions of a shadowy group of chauvinists who have used religion as a pretext for terrorizing a segment of Burma’s population.
The sad truth, however, is that this is not the first time that Buddhism has been twisted beyond recognition to serve the interests of a tiny cabal with malicious intentions. After all, for half a century, successive military dictatorships employed a grotesque parody of Buddhism to manipulate the masses.
Non-Buddhists have always had a hard time in Burma’s armed forces, at least since independence in 1948. But the situation deteriorated even further after the military seized power in 1962, after which only ethnic Burman Buddhists stood any chance of rising through the ranks.
The military also sought to impose ethnic purity on the nation as a whole, by relegating non-Burmans and non-Buddhists to the very fringes of society. Eventually, even Buddhists, who watched helplessly as their religion was degraded by power-hungry murderers, were marginalized along with everyone else who did not wear a uniform.
Although they portrayed themselves as devout Buddhists, Burma’s military rulers showed no compassion toward anyone who did not bow before them. They repressed not only ethnic minorities, but also critics and dissidents, often with brutal force.
The outcome is that we now have countless “Buddhist extremists” in Burma. Sadly, they are everywhere. They are out on the streets and sitting in Parliament, wearing military fatigues, business suits and monk’s robes.
So the rise of “Buddhist” fascists in Burma comes as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the machinations of the country’s rulers over the past half-century. Their presence in the streets of Meikhtila is no more than a throwback to the darkest days of military rule, and one that will not be exorcised easily.