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State complicity in Myanmar pogroms

Asia Times - July 1, 2013

Tom Fawthrop, Meikhtila The government of Myanmar's President Thein Sein, so active in its efforts to assure Western governments and investors that the new Myanmar will never return to the dark days of the previous ruling military junta, has so far wholly failed to prevent the contagious spiral of brutal attacks on Muslim communities carried out in town after town by suspiciously well-organized Buddhist gangs.

Thein Sein's periodic appeals for "an end to communal violence" are less than convincing given the absence of any government measures or plan to stem the anti-Muslim tide and prevent the next outbreak. Leaflets and magazines denigrating Muslims are being churned out every day across the country.

Extremist Buddhist monks, meanwhile, continue to spread a perniciously xenophobic version of Theravada Buddhism through inflammatory sermons directed against a Muslim minority that comprises only 5% of the population in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million.

Muslim shops and homes in Lashio in Shan state were [the more] recent victims of a Buddhist motorbike gang in June. Shan researcher Sai Latt told Asia Times Online that "the government and the police are not doing anything at all to clamp down on extremist hate propaganda against Muslims."

The killings of Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state in the west of the country that started the violence in 2012 has spread this year to the wider Muslim population. In March, systemic arson razed to the ground 1,300 Muslim houses and shops in the central town of Meikhtila. Armed Buddhist gangs later brought terror to 14 peaceful Muslim communities in towns and villages in central Myanmar. Acting with total impunity, they moved south to Pegu division, unleashing another wave of havoc in Okkan district.

So is the violence the inevitable result of reformist changes and allowances for more freedom in Myanmar with the emergence of a quasi-civilian government after 50 years of brutal military repression?

Certainly this is what presidential spokesman Ye Htut would have us believe. "We cannot avoid this time of chaos," Ye Htut told AFP news agency. He insisted the wave of hate speech and violence targeting Muslims was the "ugly by-product" of new freedoms allowed by the reformist government.

Whereas the former general and current deputy minister of information claims the government "cannot control the chaos", Sai Latt, a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada, claims that there is a clearly orchestrated pattern to these anti-Muslim attacks.

"Prior to the riots, anti-Muslim literature arrives in a town, followed by monks preaching '969' sermons in the vicinity. On the day when violence breaks out, truckloads of strangers including monks have appeared on the scene. In each case an incident takes place that triggers the anger of the Buddhists." The numerals "969" symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community.

Shortly after that all hell breaks loose as angry mobs cry "Kill the Muslims", attack mosques and set fire to their homes while carefully avoiding damage to nearby Buddhist-owned shops and houses.

According to Sai Latt, "there is never any preventive action. Whatever happened or however things turned out, the president's spokesman, Ye Htut, will blame Muslims and cover up the incidents on his Facebook page."

The central town of Meikhtila bears the ugly legacy of recent anti-Muslim violence. Large sections of the town have been reduced to rubble and a few broken walls all that remains of what used to be a thriving Muslim community of almost 1,300 houses shops and mosques. This correspondent found compelling evidence of state complicity among the eye-witness accounts of the actions of residents during the four days of mob attacks on the Muslim community, which resulted in at least 41 deaths.

Bill Davis, former Burma project director for Physicians for Human Rights, and Andrea Gittleman, the group's senior legal advisor, reported that "In Meikhtila, investigators found that police were complicit in the violence against Muslims... they marched unarmed Muslims toward an armed civilian mob, then refused to protect them from beating, stoning, and murder; they did not help injured Muslims; and they failed to apprehend perpetrators.

"The police force's actions in Meikhtila are in violation of the UN code of conduct for law enforcement officials, and the general lack of an effective response from the central government is a monumental failure to protect its citizens from organized and targeted violence," they said in a report.

Brutal efficiency

The United Nations has sounded similar notes. On March 26, UN Secretary General Special Advisor on Burma Vijay Nambiar said that Muslims were "clearly targeted" during the violence and that the attacks were carried out with "brutal efficiency".

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said he received reports of "state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs."

Ashin Issariya, one of the monks who led the 2007 "Saffron revolution" protests against the previous military government, has noted that Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar have lived together harmoniously for decades, a statement repeated many times by both Muslim victims and Buddhist monks in Meikhtila and other places recently engulfed by the flames of hatred and the destruction of Muslim properties.

A recurring theme from locals is that "outsiders" are bussed in by trucks and nearly all of them are armed with sticks, swords and machetes. An incident soon happens between a Muslim and a Buddhist that provides the spark and then the gangs swing into action, agitating and enlisting locals to join the ensuing riot. Muslim homes and shops are demolished and along with them previous inter-communal and religious harmony.

Buddhist monk Ashin Issariya told Asia Times Online: "This is a well-planned campaign by a group of people who use religious bigotry to further their political ambitions. Certain forces yearn for the return of a military government. General Than Shwe [the supreme leader of the former ruling military junta] is more powerful than President Thein Sein."

Thiha Saw, editor-in-chief of the Open News Journal and vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association, recently said: "Overall we have a history of religious harmony in the country. But the anti-Muslim card is the trump card, used by the military at critical times. It is an old trick. The Buddhist mobs attacking mosques are outsiders. These so-called Buddhists are often hired from the ranks of the unemployed and it is alleged they receive training from former military officers."

Buddhism in Myanmar has been battered and divided by the anti-Muslim campaign. Extremist monks, led by U Wirathu and his now infamous "969" campaign targeting Muslims, have garnered worldwide attention for their racist views. But Buddhist networks who assert the teachings of Buddha and the path of peace, religious tolerance and social justice have largely been ignored, both by international and local media.

At Meikhtila's Zay Yar Bun Buddhist monastery, senior monk Udamme Thara said, "I know more than a 1,000 Muslims fleeing from their attackers received sanctuary inside our monasteries. I am sure almost all temples provided safety and saved their lives."

Ashin Issariya's network of 800 monks, meanwhile, provided humanitarian aid to the victims of Meikhtila while at the same time organized many trucks with rice, clothes and other aid to be sent to internally displaced people (IDP) camps for fleeing Muslims.

Okkan-based Buddhist monk Shwe Nya told a gathering of monks, "We need to work together to stop this violence. This is not only good for Okkan, but good for Myanmar," reported the Irrawaddy, a Burmese newsmagazine and website. "If this conflict spreads to the whole country based on religious issues... there will be a coup. So if this continues to happen, Myanmar is headed in a dark direction." If a military faction or hardliners inside the cabinet are playing the anti-Muslim card, the real objective is probably not to stage another coup. The dark direction is more likely to be a process of entrenching the armed forces role in the country's new quasi-civilian configuration, a ploy to convince the grass roots population that a strong army is still needed to protect the nation from falling into further chaos. But in the process irreparable damage has been done to inter-ethnic harmony and the country's international reputation.

[Tom Fawthrop is an author, a journalist and a director of the Mekong documentary Where Have All the Fish Gone?, about the danger of damming the mainstream river. He is based in the region.]

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