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The vicious stabbing to death of a 94-year-old Muslim woman in Arakan state marks a new low in Burma’s shameful communal tensions. It should place President Thein Sein in a tight predicament as he put his international reputation on the line by promising a “zero-tolerance approach” to ethnic violence during a high-profile tour of Europe in July at a time when he was openly courting European investment and the lifting of the remaining sanctions on his country.
His words were echoed on 30 September by Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin speaking at the UN in the wake of riots in villages around Sandoway where five people were killed and at least 70 homes were burnt down by mobs which the president claimed were instigated by “outsiders”.
Alas it is a scene all too familiar in Burma in recent months: an innocuous personal argument between two locals—one Muslim and one Buddhist—leading to a huge mob forming to attack the Muslim residents and burn down their homes.
The attacks follow a consistent pattern and are clearly well organised. Anti-Muslim mobs now seem to be sitting in the wings in various parts of the country, waiting for the call. These thugs are allowed to travel in and out of villages with impunity armed with clubs and machetes. Local Muslims report being forcibly disarmed by the authorities and promised protection before a crowd of Buddhists torched their homes while the police looked on with indifference. The unwillingness of the police to form roadblocks or otherwise prevent these hooligans from entering towns to attack Muslims is a failure of duty so large it either represents support for the mob violence, suggests collusion on behalf of the security forces’ superiors or incompetence within the police hierarchy on a grand scale.
Although we as media often write that “calm has been restored” following a night of anti-Muslim pogroms, a closer look at these incidents suggests strongly that the rioters in each case simply decided to return home unimpeded; the police did not move in to prevent the savagery.
Last week Thein Sein emphasised: “The most important thing is we shouldn’t allow these things to happen again.” However, it is becoming increasingly evident that an anti-Muslim infrastructure has been organised in many areas around the country. Some say the 969 group are behind it. Many would conclude that the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and their allies are playing the nationalist card in Arakan state to unsettle a fragile society, while others continue to point the finger at disgruntled factions of the military. Perhaps the reality is a mixture of all these elements and more. In any case, it seems clear the racist organisers will continue campaigning, recruiting violent thugs, and enflaming religious hatred as long as they can.
If the Burmese government was truly united in its goal of ending this communal conflict, then it would have cracked down on culpable officers within its security forces many months ago, and against organisations and political parties whose agenda is transparently to abuse, terrorise, segregate or exile Muslim minorities from their communities.
But no attempt has been made to identify who pulls the strings in this tragic episode which has tainted Burma’s march toward reform and democracy. In fact, while paying lip service to the international community about equality and “zero tolerance”, the president and his senior ministers continue to talk out the other side of their mouths when addressing Burman and Arakanese Buddhist audiences.
In June, Thein Sein memorably described anti-Muslim icon Wirathu as a “son of Buddha” and a “noble person” committed to peace. And only last week parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann was quoted by the Myanmar Times praising the ethnic Rakhine people – i.e. Arakanese Buddhists – for “safeguarding Burma’s western border”. Speaking some days after Arakanese Buddhist leaders had called for the formation of a people’s militia to protect the country from illegal immigrants, Shwe Mann’s comments can be interpreted as nothing less than an endorsement of the vigilante mobs who have wreaked terror on Rohingya and Kaman Muslim villages over the last 16 months.
In short, no evidence exists that the Thein Sein government is willing to make an attempt to curb the anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. This weekend another attack flared in Kyaung Gone near Rangoon after the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by a Muslim man. In other words, every village or town where a sizeable Muslim minority lives remains a ticking time bomb. It is only a matter of time before a personal argument spirals into yet another bloodbath while the police sit on their hands and central government officials continue talking out both sides of their mouths.