Dangerous Days for Burma’s Age of Reforms

By Aung Zaw 25 June 2013

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]
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.