Violence Gives the Lie to Burma’s ‘Reforms’

By Aung Zaw 5 July 2014

The situation appears calm in Mandalay today following a spate of violence that broke out between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma’s second-largest city earlier this week.

A curfew has been imposed and police patrol the city’s mostly deserted streets. But for local journalists covering the unrest, there is fear that the trouble has only just begun.

Sadly, as reporters do their job of informing citizens of this latest outbreak of communal violence, they find themselves becoming targets of extremists. The Irrawaddy’s own reporters and photographers have received death threats, and one of our photographers has been forced to go into hiding for his safety. Reporters and stringers for foreign media have also come under heavy pressure from mobs.

Police Chief Win Khaung has gone on record as saying that the government has shut down Facebook—one of the main forums in Burma for spreading anti-Muslim rumors and “exposing” journalists deemed traitors to their race and religion—to stem the tide of hate speech. But don’t expect the government to take action against the hatemongers—it isn’t going to happen.

Last year, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said that he’d received reports of “state involvement” in attacks on Muslims, with the authorities “standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultranationalist Buddhist mobs.”

Since Burma’s opening began three years ago, there has seen a series of riots between the country’s Muslim and Buddhist communities, and anti-Muslim hysteria has reached a fever pitch on social media and in the teashops.

Burmese observers have noticed that this sudden rise in anti-Muslim sentiment began just months after the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in by-elections held in April 2012. That vote was a stinging rebuke to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which came to power in a rigged election in November 2010.

Since then, Muslims have been singled out as a threat to the very fabric of Burmese society, with attacks being carried out against them with “brutal efficiency,” according to Vijay Nambiar, the former special advisor on Burma to the United Nations secretary general.

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

Adding salt to these wounds, the government of President Thein Sein has proposed laws that would restrict religious conversions and require women to obtain permission before marrying outside their religion—in effect, endorsing the view that Muslims are a menace to society.

The marriage bill is part of a package of proposed legislation to “protect race and religion.” The package, promoted by a group of nationalist monks, also includes bills to ban polygamy, enact population control measures and restrict religious conversion. Civil society groups and interfaith groups that have opposed the laws have been subjected to death threats and intimidation.

Long-time observers of Burmese politics say the sudden appearance of nationalistic thugs on the streets of Burma comes as no surprise: Whenever Burma’s military rulers felt threatened in the past, they unleashed murder and mayhem on some segment of the population to justify the need to “restore order.”

Recently, before this latest outbreak of violence, some ethnic leaders told me that the government “lacks the courage” to hold free and fair elections next year. “As in the past, they’ll steal the election again, or if they can’t do that, they’ll find some excuse to postpone it,” they said.

Already, it seems, elements within the ruling military elite are laying the groundwork for such a scenario. When push comes to shove, they will want to be ready to put the country on lockdown to save it from the evils of democracy.

No wonder, then, that the optimism that greeted the early days of Thein Sein’s “reformist” administration is fading fast. And it’s little wonder that Mandalay—a city that hosted huge NLD rallies in May—has become a major battleground in the fight for Burma’s future.

Speaking to massive crowds of supporters, Suu Kyi called on military officials to do the right thing and amend the undemocratic 2008 Constitution, which was forced on the country by the junta than then held total control.

“I want to challenge them [military officials] to amend the Constitution within this year, from within the boundaries of the law and via the Parliament. If they truly love the country, respect the citizens: Think of the future of the country and be brave enough,” she said to loud applause.

Now joined by former activists and prominent student leaders, the campaign to amend the Constitution has gained momentum. By bringing the fight to the home base of the firebrand nationalist monk Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden,” the country’s democratic forces are mounting a direct challenge to the fascist, reactionary elements who have ruled for most of Burma’s post-independence history.

It comes as no surprise that Wirathu’s hateful incitement against Muslims has gone unchecked: Photographs on social media sites have shown him receiving alms from hardline leaders of the USDP and others who unashamedly proclaim him a true defender of Buddhism.

What is surprising is that foreign officials continue to line up at Burma’s door, eager to work with former regime leaders despite evidence that they have little interest in respecting the wishes of the country’s people for a return to full democracy.

Among recent visitors were Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who said “it is time to engage” the country’s military.

This engagement reached a new level last Monday, when Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the US Pacific Command, became the first US general to speak at Burma’s National Defense College in Naypyidaw since the two countries began their current détente in 2011.

“The purpose of this engagement, the sole purpose, was and is to speak to the military about the importance of human rights, the rule of law and civilian control,” Malinowski said. Although he characterized this engagement as “cautious,” he added that “there is the potential for a deeper partnership, even a full partnership, in the future.”

Even in Thailand, where a junta seized power in May, there is something truly surreal about the way the country’s new rulers have embraced Burma’s military leaders. Speaking on the occasion of a visit to Bangkok by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the supreme commander of the Royal Thai Army, Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn, likened Thailand’s bloodless coup to one of the most tragic episodes in Burma’s modern history, when thousands of peaceful protesters were gunned down for demanding a return to civilian rule.

“Myanmar’s government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. Myanmar had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said the Thai military commander.

As bizarre as this remark sounds, however, it is not nearly as disturbing as the fact that many Western governments still seem determined to put a positive spin on Burma’s “reforms,” even as the country’s dream of democracy looks increasingly like it is turning into a carefully orchestrated nightmare. The sooner the rest of the world awakens to this reality, the better.