A question popped up immediately after anti-Muslim rioting began in Meikhtila Township of central Burma last week: “Who is behind the unrest?”
A series of riots that started in Meikhtila and later spread to Pegu Division have taken at least 40 lives and destroyed many houses, buildings and mosques. As victims were killed, dead bodies scorched and buildings ransacked, many onlookers began to believe the violence had been systematically orchestrated.
A general hypothesis is that someone powerful must have been responsible. On the streets in Rangoon, pedestrians can be heard whispering more specific speculations. “Khin Nyunt [ex- chief of the former regime’s military intelligence unit] might be behind it,” one pedestrian said of the recent unrest. “Sandar Win [the daughter of late dictator Ne Win] got involved in plotting this rioting,” another alleged. And, “How about Aung Thaung and other hardliners in the military-backed, ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party?”
In past decades, many Burmese people believed rulers of the Socialist and military regimes used religious tension as a political weapon to distract the public from anti-government movements. When opposition protests took place, religious riots often occurred as well, and many were convinced this was no simple coincidence. Today, with the Meikhtila violence, people are coming to the same conclusion.
I raised a similar question earlier this week in Naypyidaw when I met Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and a spokesman for the President’s Office.
He answered: “I think a group of people acted as instigators but then disappeared after managing to spread rumors and spark [the clashes]. Only those who were emotional and wanted to loot remained. Rumors have been systematically circulated.”
But when asked whether the unrest could have been deliberately instigated by hardliners in the ruling party who oppose President Thein Sein’s current reforms, Ye Htut, a former military official, quickly denied the possibility.
“That’s impossible,” he told me. “The possible group [behind the unrest] would be those who don’t like the political trends that [opposition leader] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is applying.”
Ye Htut added that in the D-Wave Journal, published by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, the Nobel Peace laureate recently wrote that she believed Burma was currently in a state of nation-building, not revolution.
“Personally, I think some remaining groups in exile which can’t accept her political strategy were likely behind it [the riots],” the president’s spokesman said.
On Thursday evening, Thein Sein said in a televised address that his government would not stand by and watch the riots continue. “I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: Their efforts will not be tolerated.”
The president added: “Individual freedom, which we consider to be a fundamental ingredient of democracy, can only mean freedom that does not infringe on the civil liberties of others. Our Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to worship freely any religion they choose.”
These days in Rangoon, it is not uncommon to see monks and other individuals stirring up intolerance by distributing pamphlets, CDs and DVDs of radical Buddhist speeches to cars stopped at traffic lights. Their materials are all labeled with “969,” the name of a newly surfaced campaign against Muslim minorities in the country. In 969, the first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Buddha; the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dhamma, or Buddhist teachings; and the last 9 for the nine special attributes of Buddhist monks.
In Pegu Division, the name 969 has been spray-painted on the walls of destroyed buildings, mosques and vehicles in ransacked townships. On some cars and taxis, 969 stickers can also be seen. Many people in the country believe members of the 969 movement sparked the anti-Muslim riots.
But U Wirathu, a leading monk of the movement, denied accusations that 969 was a religious extremist group. “We’ve just become scapegoats because no culprits were found after the Meikhtila riots,” he said over the phone. “Within our circle, 969 is not violent.”
Although fingers have been pointed in different directions, almost everyone in Burma seems to agree that someone, or some group, is responsible for instigating the recent riots. Now, responsibility falls on the government to investigate and take action against the political opportunists or religious extremists behind this unrest. Only then can Thein Sein and other leaders uphold their reputation for reform and prove they are really sincere about bringing positive change to Burma.