The sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists, which started last year in western Burma’s Arakan State, is becoming increasingly complicated. In order to analyze why it is taking place and how it has spread to other cities and areas quickly, I want to go back to the beginning of the problem.
The inter-communal riots broke out following an alleged rape and killing of Thida Htwe, an Arakanese woman from Kyauknimaw Village in Arakan’s Ramree Township in late May 2012, by three Muslim youth. Many people have heard about this case but few know about its details. A closer study reveals however, that there is something unusual about the alleged crime and the way that information about it was spread.
The supposed rape took place in a place on Ramree Island, a very remote area off the Burmese coast, yet it was reported online in Facebook posts the very next day. The news spread rapidly on the social network and quickly inflamed lingering tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan State.
The victim’s photo and related instigation, as everybody knows, provoked a Buddhist mob attack on a bus of Muslim pilgrims visiting Taunggup a few days later. Then violence rapidly spread through different parts the state and beyond.
Similar incidents occurred in the region in the past, but never before did it spark large-scale inter-communal violence. Unlike in previous cases, an unpleasant photo of the victim was spread through print and online social media, stirring up strong emotions among Buddhist nationalist readers.
I’ve tried to find out who put the provocative photo online, as I suspected from the start that it was not uploaded by any journalist.
In the news industry, reporters and photographers initially send their material to their organizations, where editors will select photos based on appropriateness and a journalistic code of ethics. News organizations then publish the photos with short description of who took the photo, when and where. However, the photo showing the lifeless body of Thida Htwe was circulated without any attribution.
Seeking more details about the source of the photo, I spoke with several people who live in the victims’ village of Kyawnimaw. They said no reporters had visited the village and, more importantly, there was no internet access in the area, raising the question how anyone could have upload the photo of the victim to the internet so soon.
Since a photograph of a crime scene is generally very difficult to obtain for a reporter, I wonder if authorities have deliberately leaked the photo in order to inflame tensions between the two communities. As of yet, officials have made no effort to reveal how the photo was obtained and spread, while authorities have prosecuted few perpetrators of the horrific of inter-communal.
This lack of a resolute government response has however, benefitted the current administration of President Thein Sein, which comprises mostly members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Naypiydaw’s handling of the conflict has garnered it the support from extreme nationalists across the country.
In the year that’s passed since the violence first broke out, four public rallies have been organized in the Arakan capital Sittwe in order to show support for the government. I’ve learned that such rallies can be organized very quickly compared to other types of public protests, as government permission is easily obtained.
Remarkably, the Arakanese Buddhist population — who are not satisfied with the government’s slow-moving ethnicity registration process for local Muslims — have chosen not to organize any public rallies that criticize the government on this issue. The most recent demonstration, held early last month, was held in support of a new government policy that would prevent Muslim families in Maungdaw District from having more than two children.
The policy sparked a flurry of critical reactions in the international media and among rights groups. Burma’s opposition leaders Aung San Suu Kyi said it would violate basic human rights. Since then, authorities have been vague when asked to explain the policy to the media and foreign diplomats. Recently, Arakan officials have even denied that a two-child order was issued.
Arakan Buddhist communities in the border areas and elsewhere however, believe that the order is effective until it is repealed or overwritten.
After having been inundated with anti-Muslim propaganda for many months, ordinary Arakanese have even become disaffected with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP). The nationalist local party is the main political rival of the USDP in Arakan State and took the majority vote in the 2010 national elections.
RNDP Chairman Dr Aye Maung has seen his popularity plummet and he is reportedly giving up his leadership position. The Arakanese have turned away from the chairman because he had urged Aung San Suu Kyi — who is viewed in Arakan is being pro-Muslim — to contest the 2012 by-election in 2012 and become a parliamentarian.
In a recent discussion in Rangoon on June 22, Igor Blazevic, a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin warned that the current conflicts in Burma, including the sectarian one, could lead to the beginning of a new authoritarian rule in the country. Blazevic, who heads the Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand, also noted that in Serbia and Ukraine, the ruling parties have used nationalism as a weapon to crush pro-democratic opposition and win elections.
I would therefore like to urge extreme nationalists in Burma to calm down and thoroughly think about what really is happening in our country.
Min Naing Thu is a former Irrawaddy reporter who is currently based in Sittwe. He closely follows the inter-communal tensions in Arakan State.