Myanmar’s reform program is being challenged by continuing anti-Muslim rioting, which has left 43 dead and hundreds injured in the past two weeks. The rioting has now extended beyond Rakhine State across central Myanmar (formerly Burma), with “well-organised” anti-Muslim riots in 11 Burmese cities and towns, including its second city of Mandalay, where a state of emergency has been declared, and to Pegu, just north of Rangoon.
Security forces have been accused of being unable or unwilling to control the rioting. Although Myanmar has long had a history of religious intolerance, there are also concerns the riots are being organised by factions opposed to the country’s recent reforms. The anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhist nationalist extremists started in Rakhine State last December, where it left more than 180 dead. There have been reports of extremist Buddhists from Sri Lanka working with counterparts in Myanmar to promote a radical, religious-based, nationalist agenda. Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist communities have long had close ties, with Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhists at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s increasingly authoritarian turn.
The United Nations’ human rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, says the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting. “I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes,” he said. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”
A government spokesman has denied state involvement in the riots. President Thein Sein, who has instituted many of Myanmar’s recent reforms, has warned he would use force if necessary to protect lives and property from the violence. He has said “political opportunists and religious extremists” have been involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence.
While there is some possibility that religious extremists are taking advantage of Myanmar’s increasing openness to press for a form of ethnic cleansing, there continues to be a military faction in the country’s government opposed to its reform program. The anti-reform group has consistently been on the back foot over the past year, being replaced in senior government posts by pro-reform officers. However, the rise of religious violence has bolstered an anti-reform nationalist agenda.
Thein Sein has responded to the riots by convening a high-powered “committee” to identify and “take severe action” against the organisers of the riots. The “committee” is headed by Myanmar’s Minister for Home Affairs, Lt. General Ko Ko, Aung Min (Thein Sein’s “fix-it” minister without portfolio) and chief of police Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun.