“Muslims today see themselves as pawns in a larger game designed to rouse Burman Buddhist nationalism, discredit President Thein Sein and Ms Suu Kyi, deflect anti-Chinese sentiment to Muslims, and prove that the army is still required to maintain order.”
Old monsters stirring up trouble Some say gangs from past regime provoked clashes to undermine Myanmar’s democracy
Published on Jun 02, 2013, The Straits Times of Singapore
Firefighters extinguishing a fire during a riot between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio township last Wednesday. Some observers believe organised mobs are injected into towns to target Muslims. — PHOTO: REUTERS
By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief in Bangkok
Two days of violence this past week that may have left up to eight dead – the official figure remains at two – in sleepy Lashio in Shan state further defined an emerging pattern to the bloodshed rocking Myanmar in recent months: Organised mobs are injected into a town to target Muslims.
Who is behind this remains a subject of speculation but the episodes are challenging the government’s ability to maintain law and order. More importantly, they are a severe test of Myanmar’s experiment with democracy in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.
Ahead of this week’s World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw, the army has again been deployed to enforce order in the northern town of Lashio.
That underlines the contradictions that can baffle outsiders expecting clear answers from a complex country that has been at war externally and with itself, in some form or the other, for decades.
Shan Buddhists have no issues with Muslims living in the northern state. Shan monks in Lashio sheltered Muslims last week to save them.
A group of Shan monks stated that it was Burmans who perpetrated the violence, not Shan. The man who started it all, allegedly a Muslim, by setting fire to a Buddhist woman was not a local, real residents say.
They say the mobs which suddenly showed up and started smashing Muslim homes, shops, a mosque and an orphanage were outsiders too.
Residents of Meikhtila say outsiders were also behind violence there in March, when more than 40 people were killed. Outsiders were also the perpetrators in Bago when riots hit that township days later.
Security sources in Myanmar say the mobs are mainly men from the Swan Arshin – a loose cadre of thugs, criminals and ex-convicts used by the old military regime to intimidate and break up protests. Swan Arshin means “masters of power” or “possessors of power”.
Squads of Swan Arshin are believed to have been among those who attacked opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy at Depayin in 2003. They were also active in breaking up protests in Yangon in 2007 until the army was deployed.
A 2008 paper by the independent Asian Human Rights Commission says: “While the group’s existence and activities have been known, it is not an officially recognised organisation. It does not feature in the state media and has no public face.”
It was then a tool of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Association which evolved into the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is now the ruling party. The USDP recently however flatly denied it had anything to do with the Swan Arshin.
A newer “Buddhist militia” called the Taung Tha army has also apparently appeared, according to the sources. Taung Tha is a town which happens to be home to the notoriously hardline Aung Thaung, a former senior general and combat veteran who is now a key figure in the USDP.
The attacks in Meikhtila and Lashio were well planned and executed. Just days before the Lashio violence, the right-wing Buddhist monk U Wirathu was preaching his characteristic anti-Muslim sermons in a town some 50km away. The Swan Arshin and the Buddhist 969 movement spearheaded by U Wirathu complement each other, Myanmar analysts say.
The security source said the Swan Arshin fire up poor illiterate peasants to swell their numbers – and then wait for an incident to light a match to the tinder. The incident could even be staged.
The mobs, well equipped with swords and machetes, iron rods and sledgehammers, are then transported into town to attack Muslims.
It is a ruthless but time-honoured tactic to attack an enemy with no accountability, or to create an enemy and then attack them, or just to sow instability and chaos which may then be guided to the benefit of those controlling the mobs.
The tactic is also used to maintain an extra-parliamentary power base, a sort of insurance policy if Myanmar’s fledgling democracy disintegrates – or becomes stronger and nudges people once in lucrative positions of power to the sidelines
The attack in Lashio drew a swifter government response than the Meikhtila violence in March. Ironically for mostly Western human rights groups and pro-democracy activists clamouring for a reduction in the role of the army, the Tatmadaw is back in the streets as the only agency capable of keeping the peace.
Muslims today see themselves as pawns in a larger game designed to rouse Burman Buddhist nationalism, discredit President Thein Sein and Ms Suu Kyi, deflect anti-Chinese sentiment to Muslims, and prove that the army is still required to maintain order.
President Thein Sein has talked tough and warned against extremists derailing the democratic transition. But politics and power in Myanmar have always been ruthless.
Analysts say the President will appear increasingly weak if the old monsters cannot be tamed.
Graphics adapted from AFP
Security sources in Myanmar say the mobs are mainly men from the Swan Arshin – a loose cadre of thugs, criminals and ex-convicts used by the old military regime to intimidate and break up protests. A source said the Swan Arshin fire up poor illiterate peasants to swell their numbers – and then wait for an incident to light a match to the tinder. The incident could even be staged. The mobs, well equipped with swords and machetes and iron rods and sledgehammers, are then transported into town and attack Muslims.