Communal violence between Buddhist and Muslim residents of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second biggest city, shows how ethnic tension remains a key obstacle to civil peace in the country.
Mandalay was placed under curfew last week after two nights of riots left two residents dead and scores injured. Allegations over the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man led angry mobs to rampage through the streets, setting fire to Muslim property.
Similar themes of rape and other forms of harassment by Muslims initiated the widespread anti-Muslim riots in northern Burma in 2013, which left more than 50 dead and tens of thousands displaced in generally peaceful areas in the Burmese heartland.
Myanmar: the road to democracy?
A history of tension
Myanmar has a long history of ethnic violence.The 60-year-long civil war has been largely fought along ethnic lines, and there have previously been large-scale anti-Chinese and anti-Indian riots in the country.
Since 2012 communal violence in Rakhine state has targeted the Muslim Rohingyas, leaving several hundred dead and more than 100,000 internally displaced. Often described as among the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingyas are seen as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by Myanmar and subject to widespread state discrimination, which has recently taken the form of forcing many to live in guarded refugee camps.
The ugly face of political reforms
Myanmar has witnessed political changes on a monumental scale since the junta stepped aside for a civilian government in 2011. The transformation of the military dictatorship brought along genuine democratic progress and the return of a free media, which has removed the ability of the government to silence unwanted opinions.
This increased openness has not only benefited the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties, but also religious zealots and political extremists.
Most famous among them is Wirathu, a Buddhist monk-turned-activist who has campaigned extensively against Myanmar’s Muslim minority. He was jailed for seven years for preaching religious hatred but was released from prison, alongside hundreds of anti-regime activists, under a general amnesty in 2010.
Wirathu founded the 969 movement to oppose the spread of Islam in Myanmar and has been blamed for fuelling the anti-Muslim violence. He quickly spread the message of the alleged rape and demanded justice during the recent violence in Mandalay.
Religious tension a regional issue
Anti-Muslim violence has already damaged Myanmar’s relationship with Indonesia and Malaysia. Radical Islamists in the two majority-Muslim countries have regularly staged protests against the treatment of Muslims in Myanmar. Indonesian police foiled a bomb plot against the Myanmar embassy and a Buddhist shrine, and several Myanmar Buddhists were killed in Malyasia in what is believed to be retribution for events in Myanmar.
More worrying perhaps is the impact the communal violence has on the still unfinished political transition and on economic growth at home. Both foreign direct invest and tourism have grown less than anticipated when the largely undeveloped country opened to the Western world in 2010. It attracted only $1.4 billion in foreign investment in 2012-2013, a sharp decrease from the $4.6 billion the year before.
The world media’s interest in the country ensures that the violent riots receive widespread coverage and helps to scare off the middle-class tourist, who instead opts for the stability of neighboring Thailand.
The unexpected turn towards democracy occurred largely because the military junta was confident that it could manage a transition without threatening its security. It allowed ceasefires with the majority of the rebel groups and largely pacified areas previously at war.
However, President Thein Sein has not been successful at completing a widely expected national ceasefire, and many rebel groups are still active and even rearming. In combination with a fragile security environment, a weak and massively under-performing economy and a democratic system that is only halfway finished, the recent religious violence poses a major threat to the future of Myanmar.