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Religious Extremism Blamed for Myanmar Riots

The Meikhtila riots in central Myanmar which also spread to other towns have killed more than 40 people and raised fears that religious and ethnic clashes would continue to worsen in the country. There are suspicions that the riots were provoked to create panic and distract public attention. Many people also analyzed the roots of the violence, in particular, the rise of religious extremism which have caused division and hate in many parts of Myanmar.

President U Thein Sein gave a televised speech to warn the ‘political opportunists and religious extremists’:

I am deeply saddened to find out that a simple private dispute led to a deadly riot and that some unruly instigators, taking advantage of the disingenuousness of the public, tried to spread the riots to other parts of the country.

I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who exploit the noble teachings of these religions and tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest.

I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of general public.

A destroyed shop owned by a Muslim in Sitkwin. Photo by Thet Htoo, Copyright@ Demotix (3/29/2013)

A destroyed shop owned by a Muslim in Sitkwin. Photo by Thet Htoo, Copyright@ Demotix (3/29/2013)

Kyaw Zwa Moe wants the government to investigate and identify the people who instigated the riots:

Although fingers have been pointed in different directions, almost everyone in Burma seems to agree that someone, or some group, is responsible for instigating the recent riots. Now, responsibility falls on the government to investigate and take action against the political opportunists or religious extremists behind this unrest.

But Tomas Quintana, UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, suspects the involvement of state forces:

…(there are) 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 organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.

This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the State or implicit collusion and support for such actions.

May Ng affirms this observation. Meanwhile, Min Ko Naing, a former political prisoner and leader of the 88 Generation Students group, also saw the inaction of security forces during the riots:

On our way into Meiktila, we saw a motorcyclist armed with a machete causing havoc at a petrol station. The police and the security officers were just standing there watching him. In fact, in that kind of situation, they don’t need to wait for their superior’s orders

Andrew Selth gives an overview about the history of Muslims in Myanmar which comprise about 4 percent of the country’s population. He notes that religious intolerance is not new in the country:

…religious intolerance is not new to Burma. Indeed, before 2011 the regime reportedly encouraged some anti-Muslim riots to divert attention from its own failings.

…the problem is not just the tactics of the security forces, but the discriminatory policies and community attitudes in Burma which make anti-Muslim unrest likely to recur. These are issues that few Burmese politicians seem willing seriously to address.

Benedict Rogers visited a village and interviewed some Muslims who told him that they have been living peacefully with their Buddhist neighbors for over 200 years already:

Last Monday, I visited a village little more than two miles from Naypyitaw, where a community of 260 Muslims had lived peacefully alongside Buddhists for 200 years. They told me they had never had a problem, and had good relations with their Buddhist neighbors, until March 22. That night, a huge mob of Buddhists came to attack the mosque and the madrassa alongside it. The Muslim people fled in time, and no one was killed or injured, but the mosque was damaged and desecrated, and the madrassa completely burned out. It was a smouldering scene of fear and misery.

Francis Wade thinks the recent riot is another proof of “Islamophobic streak” in the country:

…this latest wave of attacks on Muslims is so troubling because of the involvement of civilians, who have otherwise been tolerant of the Christian beliefs of their countrymen.

The Meikhtila violence should be seen as the latest manifestation of an historic Islamophobic streak in Burma. Of course there is bitter irony in reports of civilians and monks colluding with security forces in last week’s attacks;

Matt Schissler refers to the rise of an ‘anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalism.’ He mentions the posting of ‘969’ stickers and signs in some Buddhist shops:

…since September 2012, a concerted effort to encourage support for Buddhist shops and to discourage Buddhists from patronizing establishments with Muslim ownership and refuse sale to Muslims

The 969 is about the 9 special attributes of the Buddha, the 6 Buddhist teachings, and the 9 attributes of Buddhist monks.

Maung Zarni blames the violence to what he calls “genocidal Buddhist racism”:

… they have chosen to pursue a destructive nationalism that is rooted in the fear of losing property, land, and racial and religious purity.

He also observed the proliferation of online hate speech:

The Burmese state has mobilized its society’s Islamaphobia through various institutional mechanisms, including the state media outlets and social media sites, the presidential office’s Facebook page among them. Burmese-language social media sites, which thrive out of the purview of international media watchdogs, are littered with hate speech.

Aung Zaw blames military leaders for the emergence of ‘Buddhist fascists’ and ‘Buddhist extremists’:

Although they portrayed themselves as devout Buddhists, Burma’s military rulers showed no compassion toward anyone who did not bow before them.

The outcome is that we now have countless “Buddhist extremists” in Burma. Sadly, they are everywhere. They are out on the streets and sitting in Parliament, wearing military fatigues, business suits and monk’s robes.

So the rise of “Buddhist” fascists in Burma comes as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the machinations of the country’s rulers over the past half-century. Their presence in the streets of Meikhtila is no more than a throwback to the darkest days of military rule, and one that will not be exorcised easily.

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