March 2013

 

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Communal Violence Spreads in Burma as Security Forces Stand By

Burma Partnership


A partially destroyed mosque in March in central Burma is a
witness to the latest episode of violence directed at the
Muslim Rohingya community in the country.
(Photo from www.rohingyablogger.com)
Beginning on March 20, Burma saw a shocking return to the communal violence that engulfed Arakan State last year. In the central town of Meikhtila in 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 people displaced. They are mainly Muslims, who are now living in a temporary refugee camp in a football stadium two miles out of the town.

The spark that lit the fuse in Meikhtila was an argument in a gold shop that day between the Muslim owner and a Buddhist customer. A fight broke out, and later the same 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 within two days, an unconfirmed number of people had been killed. President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency on the afternoon of March 22, and order was restored by the next morning.

The official death toll from the government is 32, announced on state television on the night of March 23, but other sources are claiming more than 100 people have lost their lives. It is difficult to obtain reliable figures as journalists, both domestic and foreign, were threatened by mobs, and some had to hide in a monastery.

Later on the night of March 23 more violence erupted in the town of Yamethin—about 34 miles from Meikhtila—as an argument in a teashop resulted in more than 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 set of circumstances 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. The town is a garrison town with both air force and infantry bases. The military personnel were in close proximity to the violence and could have been deployed quite quickly to quell the violence, but this response was not undertaken. Furthermore, witnesses talk of riot police standing around watching as the violence unfolded.

As Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, 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 three days to intervene.

According to Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar, after the violent crackdown of the 8888 Uprising against the student-led democracy movement on Aug. 8 of 1988, 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 the 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 friction but is 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 must 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.


* Burma Partnership is a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region that advocate and work toward realizing a movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. Based in Thailand, it acts as a link between groups inside the country and solidarity organizations around the world.