Reform, riot and return in Myanmar

Another riot between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in Myanmar. Was questionable nature of violence being plotted?

A man walks in Meikhtila
A flare-up of anti-Muslim violence followed a dispute between a Muslim shop owner and a Buddhist couple [Reuters]

Since the Rohingya riot last year in June, the nation’s tragedy has drawn the world’s attention. The repeated riots leaves the world with doubt on the effectiveness emerging reforms. But recently, more violence – this time in Meikhtila, in the middle of Myanmar’s Mandalay Division – has captured headlines. Human rights watchdogs, Rohingya advocates and reporters have all rushed to condemn Buddhist extremists as the source of the tension. 

The background of the latest clash between Muslims and Buddhists, however, is not as clear cut as is reported. Although it is reported to be sectarian in nature, the characteristics of the latest flair of violence are utterly atypical, and at worst, planned. An insecure public, the nature of the extremists and the announcement of a state of emergency are indicative of a regression from the still-ongoing transition towards democracy.

The immediate root cause of the riot was an argument over a broken gold piece at a goldsmith’s shop belonging to a Muslim man. After the owner had reportedly beaten up the Buddhist sellers, who were from a different town, the sellers cried for help. A crowd gathered, and the town erupted.

Propaganda spread both online and offline was swift and atrocious. Not only were false reports and fake images of dead bodies propagating, but also hateful anonymous comments towards Muslims poured in. Fake anti-Muslim (and some anti-Buddhist) accounts dedicated to spreading propaganda sprang up overnight. Several extremists inflamed the situation with racist content by linking the current flare-up back to last year’s riot between the Rohingya and Rakhine. Pro-military accounts worsened the situation by calling Aung San Suu Kyi and the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group irresponsible.

UN envoy visits riot-hit town in Myanmar

Curiously, riots coincidentally tend to occur in Myanmar during inbound and outbound trips of Myanmar leaders and important foreign guests. The infamous unrest in Rakhine State was sparked right before Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Europe on June 13, 2012. The Latpadaung Copper Mine crackdown, on the other hand, took place ten days after Obama’s historical visit to the country on November 19, 2012. The recent Meikhtila riot was triggered on March 20, 2013 – three days before Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit to the country and a week after an investigation report on Copper Mine was released. This hinted conspiracy rather than ordinary coincidence.

Despite the claim towards extremism of Buddhists in Myanmar, the current violence is beginning to resemble the riots of 1988, and how they were being framed as anarchic. After the 1988 uprising, the military swooped in and took control of the country, readily stating that they had assumed powerin order to bring a timely halt to the deteriorating conditions on all sides all over the country”. The seizing of power by the military showed that those struggling to survive under the hardship of life are easily influenced by the country’s political elite. Although reforms are promising, the military still holds a fair share of political power, and the public is always wary of their potential return to power.

Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila have been coexisting peacefully for centuries. Some Meikhtila locals even claimed that the people most involved in the rioting weren’t even from around their neighbourhood. Min Ko Naing, an 88 Generation Student Group leader who went to Meikhtila on the first day of violence, said that “there are outsiders inciting the situation”.

Tension further escalated to a new level when rumours alleged that an old woman who had been portrayed as one of the gold sellers was beaten to death. In addition to questionable reports that another monk was burnt alive, the whole town became uncontrollable.

While noble monks and many netizens have urged people not to spread the hatred so as to reduce tension, the extremists are repeatedly promulgating falsified information and reporting fabricated news. Ten days before the violence broke out, a Facebook page that claimed themselves to be the “Myanmar National Movement Committee” made a post about Meikhtila calling on Buddhists to be careful because Muslims were distributing anti-Buddhist leaflets. According to Win Htein, an MP of Meikhtila from the National League for Democracy, the unknown groups from both sides had distributed the discriminative leaflets in the affected area.

Both during and after the riot, local Buddhists and Muslims worked together to restore stability. Muslim families under threat sought refuge in monasteries and Buddhist neighbours’ houses. Police and members of the Young Buddhist Association escorted many of the Muslims to a makeshift camp at the local stadium. The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and 88 Generation Student Group leaders and monks helped Muslim families move to safer shelters.

When a state of emergency was announced on March 22 and the military joined police forces for relief and rehabilitation, they were accused of taking advantage of the situation in order to garner sympathetic feelings for the military. Furthermore, the military was denounced for attempting to gain power under the shield of violence.

The government has formed an investigative committee to create a report on the violence within a week. However, seeing as the report for the Rohingya riot was not publicised up until recently, it is questionable that this report will be released any time soon.

Myanmar has only recently took its first few steps towards democracy. However, unless the government and civil society can hold accountable to whoever planned and incited the riot in Meikhtila, more deadly clashes are inevitable. If nothing is done and the situation spirals out of control, the resulting instability could see something few want: The reinstatement of military control in Myanmar.

Chan Myae Khine regularly curates and reports about Myanmar on Global Voices and is studying a post graduate degree in Law.

Follow her on Twitter: @mydaydream89