The dramatic change in Myanmar in recent years is well-documented, and has been amply rewarded by the global community looking for a happy outcome from a seemingly intractable situation. Just as much, the race to label Myanmar a success is being driven by business and financial interests seeking access to the rich resources of the country. Many of Burma’s most valuable resources (oil, gas, metals, gems, timber) are found on lands where non-Burman ethnic groups, which constitute about 40 percent of the country’s population, have lived for hundreds, or even thousands of years. This tension between the politically and economically powerful centres of Naypyidaw and Rangoon, and the resource-rich lands on the country’s periphery manifests itself in high-level conflict (continuing war in Northern Kachin State, widespread violence in Western Arakan State) and simmering, low-level conflict nearly everywhere else.
Thus the communal violence, particularly between radical Buddhists and Burma’s Muslims, cannot be separated from on-going violence, especially by the Burmese Army, against civilians and ethnic armies, in many other parts of the country. In particular, all of this tension highlights the fact that, under the 2008 constitution, the Burmese military is beyond the control of civilian authorities. Such a lack of control has been obvious in the worst of the country’s violence, where President Thein Sein has been unable or unwilling to impose authority over the Army.
When ethnic violence broke out in Western Myanmar in June 2012, much of it was focused on the Rohingya, a widely despised Muslim subgroup whom most Burmese consider to be illegal migrants of Bengali origin, despite the fact that many have undoubtedly lived in Myanmar for generations. Tens of thousands of these people have since been displaced and hundreds killed. The government has failed to protect them, and stands accused of blocking international assistance to them, while working to deny any Rohingya rights as Myanmar citizens. They receive little sympathy, even from democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi is clearly focused on winning the national elections in 2015, and standing for the Rohingya would be political suicide.
In the early days of the conflict, many Burmans, particularly ethnic Burmans, insisted that their anger was not directed towards Muslims generally, and only towards the Rohingya (or Bengalis) in particular. Subsequent events have shown this to be a false claim, as broader anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence has become widespread. Now, all non-Burman groups, despite their numbers, fear that it is only a matter of time before they too become targets.
Genesis and Growth of Ethnic Antagonism
Much of the ethnic antipathy can be traced to the colonial era, when the British imported foreign labourers, used non-Burmans in the police force, and allowed much of the economy to fall into the hands of outsiders. After Ne Win’s military coup of 1962, many ethnic Chinese and Indians were driven from the country in a paroxysm of nationalism. In 1967, anti-Chinese riots were fomented, both as a reaction against the Cultural Revolution inside China (and influencing the diaspora), and as a distraction from the economic problems caused by the policies of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” The anger persists.
Burma endured decades of isolation from the rest of the world, which it is only now re-joining. During this long period of isolation, the global “collective consciousness” grappled with racism both in developed and developing countries. Obviously, racism in many forms and cases persists, but just as obviously, significant progress has been made. In many ways, the people of Burma missed out on this change.
Further, the recently improved access to the Internet has proven to be a double-edged sword. Burmese are eager to join to global community online. But they have also shown to be easily manipulated, and cynical provocateurs have used this “global communications system” to spread false claims and to whip up nationalism and racism. It is understandable that this new medium is trusted by those joining it late, but that trust has also been problematic.
Role of Reactionary Elements
Clearly, provocateurs have also been directly involved in the violence. Consistently, eyewitnesses describe well organised groups of men from “outside the community” as initiating attacks, which then grow as a mob mentality takes over. Where do these outsiders come from, and what is their motivation?
To answer this question, it is useful to consider who benefits from the fear, anger and instability generated by this communal violence. On the one hand, one could argue that there are local beneficiaries, who might use the violence to settle personal vendettas, or to gain business or political advantage. But given the fact that the violence has been widespread across the country, it is more useful to look higher in the power structure.
At a national level, there are certainly elements within the armed forces, and perhaps also within the “civilian” government, whose interests are threatened by the reform. These threats include loss of political and financial power, and possible accountability for past actions, which many feel include war crimes and crimes against humanity. By promoting communal tensions and violence, and continuing to engage in wars on ethnic minority communities, these elements generate threats of “disintegration of the union.” These threats are then used to justify a stronger role for the Army (whose primary stated goal is “non-disintegration of the union”) and as a critique of reform, with the suggestion that the new openness is responsible for the violence.
And how might powerful elements from the military project their desire to foment violence? In the past they have used organised, paid thugs from groups such as Swan Arr Shin, who were involved in the 2003 Depayin Massacre and the 2007 crackdown on the Saffron Revolution. It would be foolishly naïve to believe that military patronage of these groups has dried up, or that the groups themselves have been abandoned, or gone inactive. So, reactionary elements from the military have the motive and the means to foment inter-ethnic violence. Their involvement seems highly likely.
Of course, every individual is responsible for his or her own behaviour. Those who murdered a 94-year-old Muslim woman in Thandwe, who hacked young students to death in Meiktila, or engaged in other violence, need to be held to account, just like the Burma Army soldiers who continue to rape, torture and otherwise abuse civilians in Kachin State and elsewhere in ethnic areas. But it is more important to identify those in positions of power who are pulling the strings and promoting violence. Neither the international community nor the government of President Thein Sein have taken any steps to do so. Even the National League for Democracy has hesitated to go beyond cautious statements about hidden hands behind the violence.
Averting Nationwide Massacre and Regional Destabilisation
There are many sayings regarding the difficulty of “putting the genie back in the bottle” or “putting toothpaste back in the tube.” They are apt in the current context in Myanmar. Coordinated efforts to demonise and attack “others” can certainly spin out of anyone’s control. Deep within many of Myanmar’s people are feelings of frustration and anger, as they see how years of military rule have left them far behind their neighbours, with decimated education and health sectors, and many of the country’s resources stripped away by foreign companies, with payments having been siphoned into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt generals and cronies.
The generals and the cronies remain too powerful to touch, so the anger is visited upon others more close at hand. But popular anger against wealthy Chinese businesses and immigrants is also high, and even a recent beauty queen has been publicly attacked over her possible Chinese heritage. A repeat of decades-old anti-Chinese riots is certainly possible, even if not intended, as a direct outcome of the communal tensions being fomented by dark forces. Just as anti-Rohingya sentiment has morphed into anti-Muslim sentiment, with the further possibility of anti-Kachin or anti-Karen actions, so could anti-Chinese feelings and violence come to the fore. This could be disastrous, and cause serious regional destabilisation, to say nothing of a nationwide bloodbath.
It is, therefore, imperative that the Thein Sein government and its foreign supporters move urgently to identify those generating inter-ethnic hatred and violence, and use every means to hold them accountable. Failure to do so not only puts thousands of lives at risk, but also jeopardises the long hoped for progress in the country, unleashing another era, potentially even worse than the one from which Myanmar is currently struggling to leave behind.
Larry Dohrs is Chairman, Board of Directors, US Campaign for Burma