source-New York Times.
Khin Maung Win/Associated Press
Published: March 24, 2013
BANGKOK — Ethnic conflicts have been described as Myanmar’s original sin, a legacy of hatred and mistrust that fueled more than six decades of intermittent civil war.
But the ferocity of deadly rioting between Buddhists and Muslims last week has further underlined how ethnic and religious fissures in Myanmar pose serious impediments to democratic change in the country.
“How can you have peace and democracy when one-third of the country hates you?” asked Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Transnational Institute, an organization based in the Netherlands that is seeking to promote reconciliation between the majority Burman, who make up two-thirds of the population, and minorities. The violence last week, he said, was a “reminder of how deeply rooted ethnic and religious divisions are in the society.”
Over the weekend, army units restored order to the streets of Meiktila, the city in central Myanmar where a three-day rampage through Muslim neighborhoods by Buddhist mobs left 32 people dead, according to a government tally that many witnesses say is an underestimate.
But there were warning signs that the violence could spread. A police officer in a township about 55 kilometers, or 35 miles, from Meiktila said Sunday that 55 houses in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood had been destroyed by fire Saturday night. The police officer, who was reached by telephone and did not give his name, said he did not know about casualties from the fires.
Earlier Saturday, villagers tried to set fire to a mosque and religious school outside of Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, before being stopped by the security forces, according to U Zaw Htay, a director in the president’s office.
Religion has long been at the center of ethnic tensions in Myanmar, especially since 1961, when Buddhism was made the official state religion. Although some ethnic minorities are Buddhist, many are Christian, Muslim or animist.
Since coming to power two years ago, President Thein Sein has said peace with minority groups was a priority. He has pushed through a number of peace agreements with minority groups.
But leaders of ethnic minorities say those deals, which have grabbed headlines, have given false hopes to the outside world about national reconciliation.
Interviews with more than a dozen ethnic leaders in Yangon, Myanmar, and the northern state of Kachin over the past two weeks suggest that some minorities are more pessimistic than ever about hopes for reconciliation.
“The mistrust is so high that every nationality is on alert with arms in their hands,” said Hkun Htun Oo, a former political prisoner who leads a political party from the Shan ethnic group.
“It’s very unlikely that they will trust the Burmans quite easily again,” he said of the ethnic minorities. “It won’t be like before.”
One of the main drivers of distrust has been the Myanmar military’s bloody and sustained campaigns against ethnic armies in Kachin and Shan States, two mountainous areas. Ethnic leaders say the fighting shows that the government wants to vanquish them, not solve their differences through political dialogue.
“The government is talking peace, but the army is fighting,” Mr. Hkun Htun Oo said.
Leaders of ethnic groups say that the government has made no concrete moves toward a more decentralized system that would allow minorities to manage their own affairs, and teach and promote their own languages and culture.
They are also seeking arrangements on sharing revenue from national resources. Although minorities make up a third of the country’s population, the land in so-called ethnic states covers more than half the country’s territory and is full of valuable resources like timber, jade and minerals.
“Our expectation three years ago was that when democracy arrived, things would change for the better,” said Zau Ba, the academic dean of the Hanson Baptist Bible College in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.
“We expected to be equally treated as citizens. And we expected to get some religious freedoms,” he said. “We expected too much.”
The government says it needs more time. Min Zaw Oo, a member of a government-appointed peace negotiation organization known as the Myanmar Peace Center, said the government’s plans call for peace deals first and power sharing negotiations next.
“There is still a lot of mistrust — I totally agree,” said Mr. Min Zaw Oo. “But we are trying to resolve 60 years of mistrust and violent interactions in less than two years.” Yet he warned in an interview that the government would be unable to propose decisions that would require changing the Constitution without the involvement of Parliament and the military.
The leaders of ethnic minorities say they doubt the sincerity of the government, which is largely made up of Burman. Voices of restraint during violence against minorities and voices of support for ethnic causes have been faint, they say.
Those whose voices carry the most moral authority in the country, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the opposition in Parliament, have spoken sparingly about anti-Muslim violence over the past year. On Friday, as the violence reached a crescendo in Meiktila and as a video was released showing the local population shouting “Kill them!” toward a group of Muslims, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was circumspect in comments to reporters.
“The rule of law is the responsibility of all — not just the authorities but the people, too,” she said.
Zo Zam, a leading voice of the Chin ethnic group, which inhabits mountains in western Myanmar, said the Burman had maintained a master-slave mentality toward ethnic minorities and treated them as less civilized.
Mr. Zo Zam protested this month when a government newspaper reprinted a story by a famous Burmese writer who died more than 70 years ago. In the story, Chins were described as wild beasts and cannibals. “It’s better to be bitten and crushed by an elephant than to be with the Chins,” a character in the story says.
Mr. Zo Zam penned a letter of protest to Mr. Thein Sein, the president, asking why a state-run newspaper should reprint such an offensive article. “We see this as state-sponsored racism,” he wrote in the letter.
Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon.