The ethnic violence jeopardizing Burma’s reform process is laying bare “an often hidden truth,” according to a must-read special report from Reuters:
Monks have played a central role in anti-Muslim unrest over the past decade. Although 42 people have been arrested in connection to the violence, monks continue to preach a fast-growing Buddhist nationalist movement known as “969″ that is fuelling much of the trouble.
And one of the most movement’s leaders is the nationalistic monk Wirathu, who, “relishing his extremist reputation, ….. describes himself as the ‘Burmese bin Laden.’
“Wirathu [left] was freed last year from nine years in jail during an amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, among the most celebrated reforms of Myanmar’s post-military rule. He had been locked up for helping to incite deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2003,” Reuters reports:
Today, the charismatic 45-year-old with a boyish smile is an abbot in Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, a sprawling complex where he leads about 60 monks and has influence over more than 2,500 residing there. From that power base, he is leading a fast-growing movement known as “969,” which encourages Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses and communities.
The three numbers refer to various attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. In practice, the numbers have become the brand of a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism that seeks to transform Myanmar into an apartheid-like state.
“We have a slogan: When you eat, eat 969; when you go, go 969; when you buy, buy 969,” Wirathu said in an interview at his monastery in Mandalay. Translation: If you’re eating, travelling or buying anything, do it with a Buddhist.
But many Burmese democracy and civil society activists suspect that elements of the state security services may also have a hand in the violence.
Min Ko Naing, a former leader of the 88 Generation Student Movement, said it was “very clear” that the riots were instigated by “well-trained terrorists,” notes a leading activist.
“I learned the same painful lesson in my own Bosnia in the early 90s,” writes Igor Blazevic, the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.
“Ethnic cleansing is never done by the spontaneous violence of a “mob” or by grassroots communities that allegedly hate each other. It is usually the work of well-trained paramilitary groups organized by elements of the security apparatus,” he writes for Irrawaddy:
With democratization, tense ethnic relations are usually the first skeleton out of the closet. With political opening, the grievances and demands of the suppressed and discriminated groups surface in an open space characterized by a multi-party system, free media and freedom of association. Many of these demands and grievances fuel passionate nationalism which can create a lot of pressure on emerging democratic institutions.
“But there is another type of nationalism that is much more dangerous for emerging democracies,” says Blazevic, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.
Aside from Buddhist-Muslim violence, ethnic tensions on the country’s periphery also threaten to undermine the transition.
“When residents of this northernmost region of Myanmar talk about the tremendous changes of the past two years, they are not referring to the media freedoms or the economic liberalization transforming other parts of the country,” New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller reports from Myitkyina:
They mean the radicalization of the Kachin ethnic group, whose members inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas near the borders with China and India and have become more militant than at any time in living memory, Kachin leaders say.
Analysts are divided on what the deteriorating relations between the Kachin and central government mean for the country’s overall moves toward democracy and economic liberalization… A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including the neighboring Thailand, have become prosperous despite ethnic or religious conflicts.
“There are always going to be tensions, rival nationalisms, debates about discrimination and at least the possibility of communal violence,” said U Thant Myint-U, a scholar of Burmese history and an adviser to President Thein Sein. “But that’s very different than having a significant part of the country being fought over by tens of thousands of armed men, belonging to dozens of different militia.”
Min Ko Naing [right], the former political prisoner “revered by Burmese nearly as much as Suu Kyi, was in Meikhtila as the violence began,” Reuters reports:
After the massacre, he said, the mob looked well organized. Cell phones in hand, monks inspected cars leaving town, he said. A bulldozer was used to destroy some buildings. “The ordinary public doesn’t know how to use a bulldozer,” he said.
The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said he had received reports of “state involvement” in the violence. Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs,” said the rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”
Ethnic cleansing—and what is happening in Burma with its Muslim population has all the parameters of ethnic cleansing—is usually prepared in advance through ‘psychological warfare’ and cannot happen without the involvement of at least some elements of the state apparatus,” writes Blazevic, a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin:
To break the vicious circle of extreme nationalism before it is too late, courageous and responsible initiatives by civil society leaders such as Min Ko Naing and his 88 Generation colleagues are not enough. Civil society, respected personalities, moderate religious leaders, responsible media and the opposition can and should help to reject violence and call for calm. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government and state not to let ethnic cleansing happen on its territory and to stop with quick and decisive action all state and non-state forces which are instigating it.
Irrawaddy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.