History of instability in Myanmar
Myanmar’s democratic reforms and progress towards greater freedom is coming under increasing threat due to communal violence. An ethnically diverse country, Myanmar was wrecked with conflicts between different racial and religious groups since its independence. There are also many different ethnic minority groups fighting insurgency campaigns to achieve independence from the Myanmar, such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army.

In the past, most of the episodes of communal violence were violently put down by the stability-conscious military junta, which ruled Myanmar with an iron grip. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, was also at the forefront of combating the ethnic insurgent groups.

The power and influence of the Tatmadaw was drastically diminished when Myanmar, under the leadership of President Thein Sein, embarked on a series of democratic reforms that introduced greater political and economic freedom to Myanmar. The government under Thein Sein also tried to seek peace with the ethnic separatist movements through dialogues and ceasefire agreements.

However, the greater liberalisation also resulted in the increase of communal violence between different religious and racial groups in Myanmar. Last year, a series of deadly clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims at the Myanmar state of Rakhine displaced about 120,000 Rohingya people.[1]

A Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities last year. Source: telegraph.co.uk
A Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities last year. Source: telegraph.co.uk

Recent violence
The latest conflict between Muslim and Buddhists in March 2013 occurred in the town of Meiktila as a result of a fight in a gold shop over gold prices. After receiving news that a monk was attacked, mobs started to attack Muslims in the town and destroyed houses and business in the town. It was alleged that policemen did not actively intervene in the riots and killings of Muslims in the violence. More than 40 people died in the violence, including 20 Muslim boys who were taken from their schools and killed. Muslims, who make up 30% of the town, were forced to seek shelter in camps guarded by policemen.

Muslims remove debris from a destroyed mosque in Gyobingauk, Bago Region, about 125 miles from Yangon, Myanmar. Source: straitstimes.com
Muslims remove debris from a destroyed mosque in Gyobingauk, Bago Region, about 125 miles from Yangon, Myanmar. Source: straitstimes.com

Rioters were reportedly encouraged by inflammatory speeches made by Buddhist monks such as Ashin Wirathu, who argued that Muslims, who make up 9% of the population in Myanmar, are taking over Myanmar. Wirathu was released in 2012 as part of the amnesty by Thein Sein’s government, after being imprisoned in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim violence.[2] Due to the relaxation of press control by the reform-minded government, Wirathu was able to spread his anti-Muslim views to the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, by leading the 969 movement, a Buddhist supremacist group.

Ashin Wirathu. Source: bbc.co.uk
Ashin Wirathu. Source: bbc.co.uk

The dangers of unrest
The communal violence could threaten to unravel Myanmar’s reforms. As an ethnically diverse country, the sectarian violence could start a civil war and split the country into hostile and factionalised parties. There are also worries that Myanmar’s military, a force of stability in the country, may step in to take control of the situation should the conflicts spiral out of control, bringing Myanmar back to the days when it was ruled by the military junta.

Conclusion
For now, it seems like the latest episode of violence is subsiding. President Thein Sein has deployed the army to the affected areas and declared curfews. The military also pledged their loyalty to Thein Sein’s government during its annual parade.[3] It remains to be seen if the diverse religious and racial groups in Myanmar can live in harmony.

Thinking question
  1. One of the most cherished right in most democracies is the freedom of speech. Should the freedom of speech be restricted in emergencies when free speech is perpetuating violence? Why?


[1] Malaysia rescues 136 Rohingya asylum seekers, http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/2013-03-11/malaysia-rescues-136-rohingya-asylum-seekers/1099920
[2] What is behind Burma's wave of religious violence? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22023830
[3] Myanmar general lauds army's democratic role as troops patrol, http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/03/27/myanmar-military-unrest-idINDEE92Q03Q20130327