Nyein Chan Naing/European Pressphoto Agency
By AUNG ZAW
Published: April 3, 2013
THERE has been no shortage of good reasons to be optimistic about Myanmar over the last two years. Political prisoners have been freed. Travel restrictions have been lifted. The economy has been loosened up. Newspapers are flourishing and censorship relaxed. The government of President Thein Sein has reached out to ethnic rebels and to many exiles, including myself. The Burmese are scrambling to keep up with the flood of tourists and businessmen pouring into our resource-rich nation.
Still, with all the positive developments many Burmese have remained skeptical of the government. Count me among them. Most of the power and wealth are still controlled and managed by the military, whose past abuses have not yet been acknowledged. Many Burmese I met on my first return visit in 24 years last year think that the reforms have been made to get Western governments to lift sanctions, that the military may grab power at any time.
But even for the optimists, a recent spate of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar should give reason to worry about the future of our fragile nation. Without a concerted effort by the government to address the simmering ethnic conflicts, the newly liberated Myanmar could easily become the world’s next Yugoslavia and descend into ethnic war.
Two weeks ago a business transaction between a Muslim gold dealer and a Buddhist customer in the central town of Meiktila ended in an altercation that sparked a Buddhist rampage against Muslims. Mobs of Buddhists hunted down Muslims. Many were beaten and more than 30 were killed. Some were dragged out into the streets, doused with petrol and set on fire. Most disturbing, the police stood by and watched.
Vijay Nambiar, the United Nations secretary general’s special adviser on Myanmar, said last week after a visit to the country that Muslims were targeted with “brutal efficiency” — a haunting choice of words.
The communal conflicts have deep roots in Myanmar. With 135 ethnic minorities, the country has been plagued by civil wars since independence in 1948. For many decades the military rulers, most of them ethnic Burmese, sought to impose ethnic purity by relegating minorities to the fringes of society.
Muslim groups, which make up about 4 percent of a population of near 60 million, have been one of the authorities’ main targets. At best, the ethnic Burmese have regarded Muslims with suspicion and treated them like second-class citizens. At worst, Muslims have been victims of violent campaigns like the one in Meiktila.
The Rohingya people, a Muslim group in the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar, has felt the brunt of the anti-Muslim rage. Over the past year, more than 150 Rohingya have been killed by radical Buddhists and more than 100,000 forced from their homes and into refugee camps.
Since those clashes broke out in the west, anti-Muslim extremists have traveled across the country speaking out against Muslims, offering recorded sermons on protecting “race and nation” and distributing anti-Muslim stickers calling on people to boycott businesses owned by Muslims. Taking advantage of the new freedom to speak, they incite the public by claiming that Muslims are taking over the economy and converting women to Islam.
The authorities have only been making matters worse. At least one former army officer who serves in the current government has been active on social media inciting hatred for Muslims. The government has failed to arrest key leaders involved in the killings in Rakhine state.
In Meiktila, the police reportedly stood around and watched as Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims. Some of the police told journalists that they had orders to keep back.
In the end, the military was sent into Meiktila. But that in turn raised fears that the military might once again seize power under the guise of restoring law and order.
And this points to Myanmar’s dilemma: The reality of too little security or the threat of too much and a return to the old days.
In a television address after the Meiktila outburst, Thein Sein warned “political opportunists and religious extremists” that their efforts to spread hatred “will not be tolerated.” And he declared that he would not hesitate to use force “as a last resort.”
That’s a good start, but the government will have to do more. Arresting the perpetrators and putting them on trial would be a good way to show that the country is now under the rule of law. For long-term stability, the government should encourage an informed and rational debate and preach peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups and religions. The message must be loud and clear that thugs will not win in this dirty game, but rather those who embrace diversity and peace.
The democratic opposition and civil society and religious leaders should come out and condemn the recent attacks. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered opposition leader, should end her silence on the mistreatment of ethnic minorities and speak out strongly against anti-Muslim violence and ethnic violence of any kind.
With investors and foreign leaders now flocking to Myanmar — including a visit by President Obama last November — we should not miss the opportunity to leave the status of pariah behind for good.
Myanmar will be holding general elections in 2015. Hard-liners and former military men could well use the period before the elections to stoke riots and fear in the hope that the military would have to take over. We cannot allow Myanmar to go back to its dark age.
Aung Zaw is the founder and editor of The Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine on Burmese affairs. He was a student activist who went into exile in 1988 and returned for the first time in 2012.