Dangerous Days for Burma’s Age of Reforms

There’s no longer any doubt—Burma is heading in a dangerous direction. With the rise of radical and nationalist elements in the country, the government’s top-down reform initiatives are looking increasingly fragile and at risk of completely derailing.

Since the outbreak of violence in Arakan State last year, political observers in Burma have grown ever more pessimistic about the country’s prospects in the wake of the government’s seeming inability to bring the situation under control. We have watched in horror as fresh clashes have broken out around the country between Buddhists and Muslims, from Meikhtila in central Burma to the latest violence in Lashio, Shan State, earlier this month.

Some, including key government leaders, have come to the conclusion that powerful figures working in the shadows are behind these deadly incidents. There are widely held suspicions about who these figures are, but so far no one has dared to hold them accountable.

There is, however, abundant evidence that there was more to the recent anti-Muslim riots than mobs running amok. In Meikhtila, for instance, Ye Myint, the chief minister of Mandalay Division, allowed the murderous rampage to continue for three days, despite receiving numerous phone calls from Meikhtila-based opposition party leader Win Htein requesting intervention. Police who were there confirmed in interviews with reporters that they had not been given orders to take any action to restore order. Burmese government officials told donor nations that they lacked the capacity to control the mobs, but this claim rings false when one recalls how quick the authorities have been in the past to quell anti-government unrest. In the end, it was only after the violence had been allowed to rage uncontrolled for days that President Thein Sein finally declared a state of emergency and sent troops to Meikhtila.

Foreign observers are also not blind to what is happening in Burma under the guise of seemingly irrational attacks on the country’s Muslim minority. Speaking to reporters shortly after the Meikhtila riots, Vijay Nambiar, then the United Nations secretary general’s special adviser on Burma, said that Muslims were targeted with “brutal efficiency”.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, also said earlier this year that he had received reports of “state involvement” in anti-Muslim violence, with the authorities “standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultranationalist Buddhist mobs.” The government has denied the allegations.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Whenever things have gotten out of hand, Thein Sein has stepped in to reassure the public that the government won’t tolerate “political opportunists and religious extremists” to sow religious or ethnic hatred. But to this day, not one of the instigators of the violence has been brought to justice.

This week, Thein Sein’s office even came out to criticize Time magazine’s description of the controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu as the “face of Buddhist terror,” despite the fact that he has been openly fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment through video sermons urging attacks on Muslims and boycotts of their businesses. His hateful incitement goes unchecked, and photographs on social media sites have even shown him receiving alms from hard-liners.

Wirathu and a group of young monks have reportedly thanked Thein Sein for speaking out against the Time cover, but one wonders if the president is really siding with Wirathu or just trying to limit the negative impact of Time’s decision to raise the specter of “Buddhist terror”. To some observers, Time’s coverage has played into the hands of extremists who will gleefully use it as ammunition to exploit this volatile situation further. Already, government officials are thinking of banning the magazine—a step that could usher in the return of official censorship.

The question is, what do these extremists or hardliners hope to achieve by stirring up wave after wave of violence? There are several theories.

Some fear that if the violence continues to spread across Burma, the election planned for 2015 will be postponed.

There is even a rumor going around suggesting that Muslims will be hired to attack a famous religious shrine in Rangoon in order to ignite anti-Muslim riots in major cities. In the recent past, hired thugs have been used to stir up trouble in Rangoon and Mandalay, but this tactic has so far failed to achieve its goal of creating widespread chaos.

Leaders of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) also note that the violence began just months after the party of Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in by-elections in April 2012.

Some political observers in Rangoon say  that since the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) now knows that it is almost certain to lose in 2015, it will need to resort to desperate measures to stop the NLD juggernaut. Political unrest may be part of the plan, but it is also possible that the USDP hopes to stigmatize Suu Kyi (who was vilified for years in the state-run press for marrying a foreigner) by associating her with Burma’s Muslim minority. Already, a social media campaign to portray her as a “traitor to her race” has begun to suggest that if she wins in 2015, she will turn Burma into an Islamic nation.

As in the past, the country’s elite will stoop to any level to ensure that its hold on power and Burma’s wealth remains secure. The best way to do this is by taking on the mantle of guarantors of peace and stability. And if this means instilling fear in the public, then so be it.

Some suspect that USDP hardliners have begun to strengthen their ties to former dictator Than Shwe, whose residence I drove past recently when I was in Naypyidaw. Officially retired and living in a palatial estate protected by military commandos, the former strongman is regarded as highly paranoid and particularly averse to the prospect of an NLD government led by Suu Kyi.

Despite not having an official role in public affairs, Than Shwe continues to receive ruling party leaders, including members of the hardline faction led by Aung Thaung, a powerful figure notorious for the vast wealth he accumulated as a member of the former ruling junta.

Aung Thaung has a long history of involvement in shady political assassination plots, and is believed to be the mastermind behind the infamous Depayin massacre in 2003, when scores of Suu Kyi’s supporters were killed by hired thugs. These days, he is again in the spotlight as he has been linked to Wirathu. A recent meeting between Aung Thaung and the incendiary monk has had some observers suspecting the worst. Speaking to The Irrawaddy, however, Aung Thaung has denied any role in the recent violence.

What both Aung Thaung and Than Shwe fear most is that Thein Sein is getting too close to the West, something that has already begun to hurt the close ties that they forged with China when they were the undisputed masters of Burma.

Under the previous regime, Than Shwe and Aung Thaung reached lucrative deals with China, including contracts for gas pipeline projects and hydropower projects that were signed in secrecy and were, in fact, damaging to the country’s future and environment.

It has been noted that the anti-Muslim campaign came to the fore at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment over these projects was at an all-time high. After the suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower dam project in late 2011, there was growing momentum to stop other projects seen as chiefly benefitting China. But religious clashes and the controversy surrounding the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement has all but completely diverted attention from the Chinese projects and ongoing political issues.

Now, it seems, many have lost sight of the bigger picture and, sadly, the “political opportunists and religious extremists” that Thein Sein said he wouldn’t tolerate appear to be calling the shots.

20 Responses to Dangerous Days for Burma’s Age of Reforms

  1. I agree with this commentary 100%.

  2. Oh Dear. Our precious reforms were going so well. We’d better re implement martial law and put the bad elements back in prison. How unpredictable.

  3. Aung Zaw
    Your theories do not add up. Who paid the Rohingyas to rape a Rakhine girl last year? Who paid to beat up the Burmese couple by a Muslim gold shop owner in Meikthila? Who paid Ne Win to douce gasoline on Buddhist women that started the riots in Lashio? The same for Okkan incident. Sadly all were coincidental incidents that led to riots. You have become a biased writer and a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think Than Shwe and Aung Thaung together with USDF members will achieve to stop the democratic waves happening in Burma. The both are billionaires and they don’t care. If the Chinese get the mobile phone contact in a few days, you can assume that the Chinese still has clout. Otherwise, they are history. We will know in a few days. Why do you have comment box if some of the comments are not appearing in the cooments? Some disappeared afer a few hours.You are the same breed like the BSPP , SLORC censorship board.

    • The 3 alleged rapists were executed (one of them committed suicide?) very quickly after that incident, so it’s not clear at all who they were and why they murdered the young woman. By the way, that intial incident occurred very close to Kyaukphru where the Chinese are building a giant oil/gas terminal and a naval base. I think this first incident (together with the subsequent attack on a bus carrying Muslims) were the crucial events but everything about that was hushed up very quickly and very efficiently. After that it’s not difficult to see that the riots in Meikhtila, Lashio and Okkan followed along similar lines. The pattern is almost predictable!

      • hi
        Could you explain why aung thang said that killing local Muslim incidence was conspired by Burmese communist party who is and was supported by Chinese communist? This remark will affect the reputation of Chinese communist in general. If you say it is not affect the Chinese, the strategy from aung thaung is far more intelligent than CIA, Putin, Harvard, MIT, Barclay and Oxford.
        It seems to me that you agree that aung thaung’s above statement because you said there are Chinese giant oil/gas business with Burma and Chinese naval base. Therefore , Chinese wants to clean those Rohingya with the help of Aung thaung because those Rohingya is powerful enough to disturb those above businesses and Chinese naval base from now and then.
        If you blame on greedy and insecure China continuously so and so forth on one sided, it is totally fruitless as well as adverse outcome ( another sino-Burmese clash will come out) will occur in Burma, not in rich China seriously.
        All the plots from aung thaung , agreed by than shwe are targeting DASSK. Temporarily,stopping the Myitsone hydro-power business might be unilateral decision from than shwe to favor DASSK deliberately as well as USA and EU for the sake of relieving sanction from them for their survival tempo. I am not sure China might agree on this strategy. It is normal for all, including you that China needs security for having more own naval bases around itself as well as around the world, like US. The root cause is the rulings of bama military thugs are and were not good so than shwe and aung thaung needed and need to open cheap shop for China, Singapore and Thailand. It is normal human behavior for all, including you that you want to buy the cheaper mobile phone for the same model from cheaper shop, so called shopping.
        Now, DASSK was in the difficult situation after handling the copper mining issue, relating to China business. DASSK has to face giant China from than shwe strategy in this case.
        Now, thein sein gains more from US, UK , Japan for recognition by the investment of irritating China as well as killing local Muslim. One of the DASSK’s favorite is working in the Muslim clinic. Thein sein and aung thaung find the psychotic, Buddhist terrortorist ( bama Bin Ladin) to stir up more for restriction of interfaith marriage to downgrade the opposition of DASSK. If the signature campaign from the idiot and than shwe is successful, popularity of DASSK will going down with the investment of spilling local Muslim blood in Burma with idiot Buddhist monk’s tonic boiled blood. Idiot monks and naive Burmese could displace their anger and jealousy to local Muslim from than shwe and aung thaung ( cruelty and billionaire).
        German travelller will or can find the easily irritated local business men Muslim in this column and the whole Burma. You might see some easily irritated commentators ( mostly angery local Muslim) in this forum scold German traveler in foul languages after reading his or her irritated and illogical opinions from Than shwe-born Hilter German traveller who never shows his anger against you in his reply. However, that Hilter respect Kachin rebels sometime because Kachin have gun. He ( ex-army man) is the set-up, paid guy from USDP research team. German traveller needs to advertising bama nationalism in some naive Burmese and monks. Then, that than shwe-born German Hitler can find any paid bamars to go to irritate this local Muslim they targeted verbally or gesture-wise or body language-wise. The business will be came out from this easily irritated local Muslim to harm the set-paid-bamars. Before that, Wirathu needs to go near that location to organize everything in the aspect of advertising 969 as well as paramilitary ( motor-bike, weapons) for readiness. All the authority mobile phones are shut down for 3 days during killing Muslim by Wirathu. Police are not eligible or are less training in handling eruption and killing, also agreed by DASSK in mining eruption.
        Some naive Burmese , including Tom tum-scholar as well as U Ne Oo( Australia ) address that killing Muslim is necessary because of lovely Bamanization or bama nationalism. All ethnics have no right to have own nationalism because of invalidity of panglong agreement, designed by G-Aung san. Than shwe has gun and money. The whole Burma is his toilets and bathrooms so he can shit what he wants to create the cruel stories he enjoys with his cruel, unethical mind-set. You, all can not create the stories what you enjoy because we, all are than shwe’s cleaners. I do not care you believe or not but it can be feasible and possible in anyway by than shwe and his USDP( unethical soldier disorder party). It is the set-up so it become “the story of Chicken and egg” created by than shwe. In Chicken and egg, you can not find who did or do it first coming out. In the world poorest country Burma, you can find any paid guys easily and readily.
        Aung Zaw did not give opinion on the above important statement, made by Aung thaung as well as Irrawaddy does not show my above aung thaung’s statement i asked. Andamanonge is creating the sino-Burmese clash to be trapped into than shwe again. Be careful to think what is the meaning behind this important statement made by Billionaire aung thang. I hope you are not from the research team of USDP or you are not idiot. Today-China is not idiot now.

    • Han, T3 or German Traveller or China-man or whosoever here, yes, Than Shwe and Aung Thaung are billionaires and they can maintain their billionaire lifestyles only if they can continue the usual non-ethical tradings with the Chinese.

      I also support Ko Aung Zaw’s commentary for 100%. While we all are concentrating on religious issues, most are our country resources are continue leaking into China unnoticeably on unfair terms and conditions. Chinese only support billionaires Than Shwe and Aung Thaung not the ordinary Burmese people.

    • @ Han, T3: It’s arguable whether U Aung Zaw’s theories add up or not. However, an indisputable fact is that his journal “The Irrawaddy” has now become the best forum for readers’ comments among all present news outlets on Burma. Maybe there can be exceptions that some comments were not printed due to personal attacks or other unacceptable nature. Look! Your comment with direct assault on him appeared.

  4. A very good in-depth analysis Ko Aung Zaw!
    I wish Hannah Beech would have written a more thoughtful article in TIME like yours rather than her rhetorical and unnecessarily provocative style, which probably is causing a lot of damage to the honest attempt of many “informed and educated people” in Burma (and elsewhere) to establish closer and friendlier ties to the West in order to avoid becoming a Chinese pariah colony.. I have said this for many years now (under my earlier pseudonym “tocharian”) that China’s real goal is to make Burma into a tributary vassal state. They are using the classic 2Y-strategy (Yuan and Y-chromosomes) now combined with the 3B-tactics (Bullying, Bribery and Buddhism!). Burma is considered a “juicy plum” for natural resources and a strategically located tributary vassal state by China. Peking’s new strategy is to “support” pro-Buddhist anti-Muslim elements in Burma. This is of course ironic given the situation in Tibet and Sinkiang. For most Burmese, even for moderately religious people, Buddhism defines their national ethnic identity and they are deeply insulted if any foreigner says anything bad about their monks. China knows that! If you check the new Facebook page (although Facebook is “forbidden” in China) of the Chinese Embassy in Burma you will see lots of Buddhist monks, Burmese and Chinese mingling happily together!

    It is really not rocket science to see the Sun-Tzu style obvious Chinese tactics of using the Muslims and the Rohingyas as scapegoats to divert and distract the people of Burma from the ugly fact that China is controlling Burma more than anyone else.

  5. I strongly agree the phrase “Burma is heading in a dangerous direction”.. the direction of former Yugoslavia.I am not pessimistic but I am very sorry to say that. What other direction someone can imagine????
    Bad Luck my fellow Burmese people

  6. If we look through “western spectacles” there are good reasons to be pessimistic referring the present situation in Myanmar. Trying “eastern spectacles”, and they give us a total different sight. Perhaps a “construction in-between” – one eastern, one western glass ?
    By the way, there was a similar situation in Indonesia 15 years ago, like in Myanmar at present time. Judge the situation in Indonesia today: Economically not too bad, and socio-politically not too good. Corruption seems to be worse than before and the radical Islamic component definitely has been strengthened (both like in democratic Western Europe as well). What more do we want ?

  7. German Traveller may not be a Fascist but you would make Hitler and the Nazis proud. Keep spewing hatred, you are in good company. Seig heil, mein fuhrer!

  8. Maung Lu Aye ( Law )R.A.S.U 1976

    One of the Wise Commentators mentioned Than Shwe as Fox Than Shwe. Fox means Cunning. A lot of Green Uniforms wear High Military Personnel are Foxes. Not Sincere, not Honest like Gen. Aung San. Gen Aung San’s Predicted that when you have No Disciplne, the Country would become “Whores’ Country’. It is absolutely right that Ne Win & his Generals have No discipline,destroyed Burma & the Country going down to Abyss.
    Ko Aung Zaw’s Article is logical,not one sided-ness. As Everybody Knows in 1988 Burma Uprising, People were marching in peaceful Demonstation.The BSPP’s Thugs disguised as Ordinary Citizens made some People to commit Murders by beheading the Govt.Spies. One of the Brutal and uncililized Act that they had Created.
    In 1974 UN Secretary General U Thant’s Funeral Demonstation, University Students were marching Peacefully, and The MI/Miltary Intelligents disguise as Students forced the Other Students to destroyed Govt’s Buildings in order The Police or Military to take over or Announced Martial Law. My first hand Witnessing experience.
    Although,Than Shwe & Aung Thaung are Both Billionaires they Stiil thirst of POWER very much learned from 1st Aphaygyi Ne Win. Power can do anything more than Billionaire.
    Every Corner & Every Part of the World there were/are Still Dictators such as Assad from Syria,Gaddafi from Libya,Idi Amin from Uganda,etc. They were not survived very long. Idi Amin was died in sorrow at other Country & Gaddafi was Killed by Gun shots.
    At the Last days of Than Shwe & Aung Thaung, they should Regret about their Wrong doing/Crimes upon the Citizens of Burma and should admit & better going to Tayar Yeikthar ( Religious Shrine ) for their gravest Sins.

  9. China bashing alone is not the soltion for Burma. We need also to see what the western socalled free democracy has to offer. there are also thousands of western companies who bribe the corrupt officials and do business. even many big names are invovled in scams worse than the Chinese have to offer. there’s a common belief in Africa: when the Chinese come, they don’t go for your daughters, when the Americans come, they go for your wife even. It happened everywhere the US and the west went. And Burma has to move cautiously. Aung Zaw is not totally right, he isn’t totally wrong, too. But Aung Zaw is singing the hands that feed him. No wonder!

  10. Self fulfilling prophecy. Myanmar is still in the making. A social compact is being attempted but Burma will never be the same, we have , wether we are bamar, shan, kachin, chin, mon, etc have changed, for better or the worst. Commonality and understanding can only be achieved through re-examining of the past and continuing process of conflict and competition for given resources and territory in Myanmar.. This is the 21st century where political hypocrisy, mendacity etc rules, where God and Marmon are one.

  11. Aung Zaw…. I just wondered did you get any assistance from CIA? Every Western nations sanctioned Burma for almost 20 years…. Who helped Burma???

  12. Aung Zaw wrote: What both Aung Thaung and Than Shwe fear most is that Thein Sein is getting too close to the West, something that has already begun to hurt the close ties that they forged with China when they were the undisputed masters of Burma.
    I do not agree with the above because thein sein has no military power so without having order from than shwe, thein sein did not dare to stop Myintsone hydro power project for the benefit of China as well as than shwe. Why did aung thaung state that the riot of killing local Muslim was from the conspiracy of Burmese communist who is supported by China all along. Do you all believe that unwise China give a green light to aung thaung to make that kind of statement to hurt the Chinese reputation upon Muslim?
    It is 100% sure that the target is to prevent the success of DASSK in coming 2015 election.

  13. @ Burmese Daze @ TSO @ Norman Hla

    Unsurprisingly: “United Islamic revenge”, from at least three sides, unfortunately in an unqualified and rather primitive style. But it is good that my comments touched your nerve. Now start reflecting about this and that. Be thanksful that I expressed what countless non-Islamic people are thinking – and what is a part of the substantial problems the “Islamic world” is causing to the “non-Islamic world”, incl. Myanmar. And the bulk of the troublemakers are definitely Moslems, whether militant-fanatic, fanatic or semi-fanatic. Now, take a look in the mirror.

    • GT
      Your wordings of “revenge, primitive style, touched your nerve and troublemakers” are lack of substance in reply to our opinions upon your bad reputation. Also lack of reasoning and evidence as well as lack of logical and common sense at all occurred. Tell your than shwe do not play the games or he will suffer more and more ultimately. Bamanization-nationalism is out of context because we, all Burmese are fed up bama military thugs as well as Buddhist thugs-transformed and trained by than shwe private army.

  14. Burma will not get a taste of peace as long as Burmese army involves in politics and Burmese government ignores the demand of ethnic nationalities rights who have been struggling for self-autonomy. It is clear that the army has no intention of relinquishing the power of the state if one closely look at the context of the 2008 constitution. Even current quasi-civilian government led by ex-general Thein Sein has no control over the army_ the army continues to assault against the ethnic nationalities armed groups whereas the cease- fire negotiation take place. Such act has alienated many of ethnic groups which undermines ongoing peace process. Burma mostly is in a state of chaos and hostility, a situation which Burmese army is always in favour. A current religious clash between Buddhist and Muslims is a key mechanism for the USDP backed by the army to win the upcoming election in year 2015.

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