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Myanmar’s fledgling democracy faced yet another obstacle to its progress when anti-Muslim violence flared up in Central Myanmar town of Meiktila in March 2013. It quickly spread to six other smaller townships in Thayawady district in Bago Region in Lower Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch, it also spread to 11 townships in Mandalay and Pegu divisions, where Muslim neighborhoods were ransacked.

According to the government a total of 43 people were killed and 93 were injured in the riots, most of them in Meikhtila; 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed. Police said 68 detainees were being charged for their role in the acts of violence.

Close on its heels a fire in a Muslim boarding school in Yangon on April 2 left 13 Muslim teenagers dead. Though the police have identified electrical short circuiting as the cause of fire, some Muslim community leaders suspect it could be a case of arson. If this is established after the enquiry, it would indicate the virus of communal violence has arrived in Myanmar’s premier city.

These riots have unnerved Muslim community which had been watching with unease when Rohingya Muslims became the target of ethno-religious violence in Rakhine State in November 2012. Their sentiments were echoed by the HRW report on Meikhtila violence. It said “The destruction [in Meikhtila] appears similar to satellite imagery of towns affected by sectarian violence in Arakan [Rakhine] State in 2012, in which arson attacks left large, clearly defined residential areas in ashes.”

The anti-Rohingya Muslim riots left about 140 killed and rendered 100,000 homeless. They became the latest boat people fleeing Myanmar to find refuge wherever they can as neighbouring Bangladesh refused to accept any more of them to the 110,000 Rohingya refugees already there. Police present on the location initially did not react at all. It took action only after much of the damage had been done. Rohingyas had alleged that the local border militia and police colluded in perpetrating the violence. This would indicate local authorities tend to condone such communal acts rather than act quickly to defuse the situation.

Muslims in Myanmar

Muslims in Myanmar have a history of over a thousand years. Islam came with Mughal invaders from India and Sultan Suleiman of Yunnan. Anti-Muslim sentiments among Burmese Buddhists have their roots in the persecutions and forced conversions carried out among Buddhists during the Mughal rule. Though Buddhists consider Muslims as a single entity, there are distinct Muslim communities with their own ethnic linkages and cultural history. The distinct groups include descendants of Burmese converts to Islam, Muslims of Indian descent who have settled in Myanmar, Muslims who had migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Zarbari Muslims who are children of South Asian Muslim fathers and Burmese mothers, Panthay Muslims of Hui Chinese origin fromYunnan settled in border areas of Myanmar and Rohingya Muslims inhabiting Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.

During the British colonial rule in the first half of 20th century, anti-Indian sentiments started rising among local people when Indians started dominating business and bureaucracy, Chettiar money lenders seized control of lands, and cheap Indian labour deprived the ordinary Burmese opportunities to earn a living.

In that period, nearly half the Indians in Myanmar were Muslims. As a result of this, anti-Indian sentiments had anti-Muslim sentiment as an inevitable part. So when anti-Indian riots broke out in Yangon in 1930 killing hundreds of Indians, Muslims also suffered. On the other hand, Muslims were also seen as symbols of British colonial rule; according to historians the nationalist-inspired anti-Muslim riot of 1938 was actually against the British rulers.

In the run up to independence, the Burma Muslim Congress (BMC), the nodal organization of Burmese Muslims, fully supported General Aung San-led Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom Party’s (AFPFL) national struggle. Though Muslim leaders were included in the post-independence cabinet, a few months later Prime Minister U Nu’s attitude towards Muslims underwent a change. The BMC was asked to leave the AFPFL. Subsequently when U Nu made Buddhism the state religion, it was much against the wishes of Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority communities. Restrictions were imposed on Halal slaughtering of cattle.

When General Ne Win seized power the attitude towards Muslims further hardened. He expelled Muslims from the army. Islamist violence perpetrated in Indonesia and their anti-Buddhist actions like the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan is also said to have touched off anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

As anti-Muslim sentiments among sections of population have a long history in Myanmar, it remains a potential destabilizing force of democracy. This is yet another issue that could provide a level of legitimacy for the army to take charge of the situation reminiscent of its foray to capture power in 1962.

What do the riots indicate?

Both the anti-Rohingya violence and anti-Muslim riots in Meikhtila were triggered by minor incidents involving individuals from the two communities. Such incidents were quickly exploited by fringe elements to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments among the Buddhist majority resulting in well organized acts of violence.

In Rakhine and Meikhtila Buddhist mobs led by some monks spearheaded the anti-Muslims violence. The destruction was systematic and well planned. As violence spread quickly in different regions, a level of networking and coordination probably exists between Buddhist fringe elements in different parts of the country.

In the case of Rohingya violence, a number of sporadic incidents preceded the outburst of violence. These incidents were ignored by the authorities presumably because officially, Rohingya’s are not recognized as Myanmar citizens. Though they have been living in the region since pre independence days, Myanmar’s discriminatory citizenship laws are weighted heavily against people of foreign origin. This would indicate xenophobic tendencies continue to influence official thinking.

Local political leaders including those of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were either helpless or ineffective in taking any action to curb the violence. Unless political constituency and democratic government show themselves capable of handling such critical situations, they provide an opening for military to prove themselves as an essential component of “democratic rule.” This is what happened during the anti-Muslim riots when the army had to step in to control the situation.

Even Ms Aung San Suu Kyi who commands wide popularity across the board, disappointed many with her inability to handle the issue when ethnic question got mixed up with religious extremism. Coming in the wake of her demonstrated reluctance to take positive action during anti-Rohingiya riots, it showed lack of self-confidence in taking action on issues affecting the majority community.

This could have far reaching impact not only on her leadership credibility but also in NLD’s political credibility particularly when vested interests kindle divisive elements for gaining political advantage in times of election.

The sooner the democratic elements organize themselves to prevent such communal flare ups, the better it is for democracy. This is more so when Myanmar is coming out of the shell and needs the goodwill of international community for its peaceful development.

In the context of Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has two international dimensions. The first is it could antagonize a prosperous segment of Asian investors among the Gulf countries from investing in Myanmar’s development. Secondly, Islamic extremism which is staging a last ditch fight in neighbouring Bangladesh and in some of the ASEAN countries, might find a potential opportunity in Myanmar to spread its tentacles.

( The writer, Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, who served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-

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