Weekly Highlights Communal Violence Spreads as Security Forces Stand By
18 - 24 March 2013
Starting on Wednesday, 20 March, Burma saw a shocking return
to the communal violence that engulfed Arakan State last year. In the
central town of Meikhtila, Mandalay Division, attacks on people and
property, have left at least 32 dead, religious and residential
buildings burned to the ground, and more than 6,000 displaced. They are
mainly Muslim people who are now living in a temporary refugee camp in a
football stadium, 2 miles out of town.
The spark that lit the fuse in Meikhtila was
an argument in a gold shop on Wednesday between the Muslim owner and
Buddhist customer. A fight broke out and later that day a mob arrived to
destroy the shop and nearby Muslim-owned businesses. Fighting in the
street escalated as sections of the two communities fought, and by the
end of Friday, an unconfirmed number of people had been killed.
President Thein Sein declared a State of Emergency on Friday afternoon
and order was restored by Saturday morning. The official death toll from
the government is 32, announced on state television on Saturday night,
but other sources are claiming over 100. It is difficult to attain
reliable figures as journalists, both domestic and foreign, were threatened by mobs and some had to hide in a monastery. On Saturday night, more violence erupted
in the town of Yamethin, around 34 miles from Meikhtila, as an argument
in a teashop resulted in over 50 buildings, mostly Muslim-owned, being
torched, although there are no confirmed deaths.
Simmering tensions between Muslim and
Buddhist communities in Burma have existed for many years, and have been
exploited by successive regimes to create a situation where the army is
needed. One of the more destructive elements
present in Burma today, and well known to the government, is the “969
campaign” that spreads hate-filled literature, inciting violence against
Muslims. It is present throughout the country, from organizing a
boycott of Muslim businesses in Karen State to destroying Muslim shops
in Mon State and playing CDs of 969 sermons in teashops in Rangoon.
Rumors of a “third massacre,” after the two in Arakan State last year,
have been floating around towns and cities in Burma for a few weeks.
This raises the question of why the government has not done more to stop
this campaign or to prevent the violence.
The reluctance, and in some cases negligence
of the authorities to intervene in the spreading of these messages is
consistent with the actions of the security forces in Meikhtila this
past week. The town is a garrison town, with both an air force base and
an infantry base. The military personnel were in close proximity to the
violence and could have been deployed extremely quickly to quell the
violence but this was not done. Furthermore, witnesses talk of riot
police standing around watching as the violence unfolded. As Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Groups pointed out,
“When a mob of people with weapons in their hands are killing a person
for no reason right in front of the security forces’ eyes, then they
shouldn’t have to waste time asking questions.” It seems strange how a
military police force that has had years of experience crushing those
they deemed as “destructive elements of society” could prove to be so
ineffective in Meikhtila, taking 3 days to intervene. According to Burma
Partnership Coordinator, Khin Ohmar, after the violent crackdown of the
8888 Uprising there was a one month period of “democracy” under the
civilian, interim president, Dr. Maung Maung in which army trucks
patrolling around Rangoon did nothing to stop the rioting taking place
in front of their eyes.
It is important to note that everyone in the
community did not undertake these kinds of actions. Reports of Buddhist
monks escorting Muslim families to the camps as well as Buddhist
households hiding petrified Muslims from mobs have also emerged.
There is an underlying tension between
certain elements of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma. There
needs to be long term, trust building policies and programs, and
effective implementation of such policies and programs that can
harmonize the fractured relationship between them. The government,
however, is not only not addressing this, but allowing warning signs of
further escalation and spread of this kind of violence to be present in
many parts of Burma. The international community must acknowledge the
gravity of the situation and urge the government to take full
responsibility to ensure this violence does not spread any further and
that vulnerable communities are provided full security and care under
international human rights and humanitarian law.