In early July, a hundreds-strong mob of Buddhists converged on a shop in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city. According to rumours spread on social media, its Muslim owner had raped a Buddhist woman. The ensuing violence left two dead and a dozen injured.
Since 2012 more than 240 people have died in communal violence fought along religious and ethnic lines, the victims overwhelmingly Muslim.
Than Nyunt of the Interfaith Religious Group of Mandalay, told IRIN it was the intervention of both Muslim and Buddhist leaders that stopped violence in Mandalay from spreading - a significant achievement, experts and community leaders say, given the current polarized political atmosphere in the country.
“We approached the crowd in the streets and people in communities and urged them not to get involved in the fights, not to believe the circulating rumours,” Than Nyunt said.
On 8 July, a week after the outburst, Myanmar’s reformist president, Thein Sein, addressed the nation on the radio, saying: “We have faced various challenges with ethnic and religious conflicts…. [M]any of the conflicts were deliberate instigations to derail our aim of achieving a society based on democratic principles.”
After the violence, the government imposed a curfew on Mandalay and deployed security forces.
“With the presence of the police deployed across the city, people no longer need to worry about their safety,” said Chit Htoo, vice-chairman of Byamaso Social Services, an NGO in Mandalay. Chit Htoo is a member of the Peace Restoration Committee of Mandalay, a citizens’ group formed in the wake of the July violence by senior citizens in Mandalay with guidance from Buddhist monks. Other community groups followed suit.
“For the sake of our country’s future, our next generation, we must ensure that rule of law is in place, communities are well-educated and harmonious, and the government must respond instantly and effectively,” said Shine Win, a founding member of Interfaith Youth Coalition on AIDS in Myanmar.
But, some analysts say, community-led initiatives will be up against increasing - and often politically manipulated - polarization as the country approaches an election in 2015.
Religious leaders, particularly Buddhist monks, hold considerable political stature in Myanmar: They were major players both in the struggle to regain independence from British colonial rule and in democracy movements. However, in an environment the International Crisis Group (ICG) has called a “context of rising Burman-Buddhist nationalism” being pushed by a monk-led “populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority”, monastic influence can fan the flames of hatred as well.
“As usual with Burma’s communal violence, the plot thickens as the dust settles,” said Dave Matheison, senior researcher on Burma at Human Rights Watch. “So the question hangs: was this another case of organic, spontaneous religious violence, or an orchestrated piece of a broader political puzzle utilizing racism ahead of Burma’s 2015 elections?”
Weak reactions feed the rumour mill
In his national address, President Thein Sein said: “Everyone must avoid hate speech and incitement, and sensibly, bravely and with foresight cooperate to bring legal action against those responsible for such acts.”
However, government failure to prevent clashes or investigate and prosecute those involved suggests a weak grip on instigators.
“As long as rule of law is weak and the government doesn’t take actions instantly and effectively, the [sectarian] conflict could spread far and wide,” said Phyo Min Thein, lawmaker in Hlegu Township in Yangon Region, which saw a small brawl between groups of Buddhists and Muslims in April 2013.
“Repeated failure by the government does suggest that there are elements of the government who may be not only sympathizing with the perpetrators but possibly actively creating the problem,” said Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “There may be political reasons behind this. There is a lot of speculation, a lot of theories and rumours, some of which sound plausible,” he said.
One popular theory involves democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was scheduled to visit Mandalay this week for a rally on constitutional reform. Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years, is prevented from running in the 2015 presidential election by Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.
“It is probably no coincidence that a fake memo from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party circulated throughout Facebook in Burma claiming the NLD was planning on taking advantage of the [Mandalay] riots to protect Muslims,” explained HRW’s Matheison, adding that U Wirathu, a Mandalay-based influential and well-known monk who has sparked fierce criticism for his anti-Muslim speeches, is publicly opposed to amending that clause of the constitution which would permit Suu Kyi’s eligibility to be president.
“The best way the government can prove the conspiracy theorists wrong would be by taking clear action to prevent further violence, to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, to end discrimination, and to address hate speech,” said Rogers.
Tensions on the rise
The violence in Mandalay comes 15 months after a bloody communal clash between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in Meiktila - about two hours from Mandalay - killing 40 people and displacing 1,200. In June 2012, a mob of Buddhists in western Rakhine State attacked Muslim men in retaliation for an alleged rape, setting off riots that left 80 dead and tens of thousands displaced.
Renewed violence in October of that year left more than 100,000 displaced, where they remain today.
Stoking tensions, in May 2014 the government published the first of four religious conversion laws, which drew criticism for breaching human right standards. And in June Thein Sein fired Minister of Religious Affairs U San Hsint and replaced him with advisers including a military official implicated in a 2012 crackdown that injured several Buddhist monks.
Ethnic and religious tensions in Rakhine State, home to the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority, continue to fester.
Myanmar’s first census in 30 years did not include the word “Rohingya”, a move analysts with the International State Crime Initiative called part of the “dehumanization process”, a precursor for genocide, arguing that “the Burmese state has had decades to ‘rationalize’ violence against Rohingya.”
In March Rakhine Buddhist mob violence against aid agencies over perceived pro-Rohingya bias triggered mass humanitarian withdrawal from Rakhine State. During a 13 June visit to internally displaced persons’ camps in the state, the assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator, Kyung-wha Kang, called the situation “appalling, with wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation”.
Grassroots and online responses
Amid limited action from the government, some community leaders are taking initiatives into their own hands.
“Interfaith education should be given at the community levels,” said Bo Bo Lwin of Kalyana Mitta Development Foundation, a Buddhist group that has conducted workshops and promoted peace in collaboration with other faith-based groups in several cities.
Shine Win, of the Interfaith Youth Coalition on AIDS in Myanmar, said school reform will need to be part of the solution.
“The government needs to institute lessons on history of different religions in the curriculum. If children learn about other religions in school, the communities can be better integrated as they grow up,” he said.
Shine Win told IRIN that part of inter-faith groups’ community outreach must be to counter hate speech and rumours on social media.
“Here the problem is that many people believe information they get from blogs or websites, without considering whether it is reliable or not,” he explained.
“One of the campaigns we’re going to conduct is to raise awareness among the people not to believe the rumours that they get [from different channels] such as through social networks like Facebook,” Shine Win said, adding that they had attempted such a campaign when rumours of the Mandalay rape began spreading on the Internet, but it was too limited in reach to prevent the violent clash.
“We need to do this sort of outreach on a larger scale and with multiple inter-faith groups, reminding people to check the sources of information and not believe inciters on the Internet,” he said.