At bus stops across Yangon, young people approach passengers and bus drivers, handing out stickers and T-shirts proclaiming: “I won’t let racial or religious conflict occur because of me.”
They are part of a youth-led campaign taking place in Myanmar’s largest cities, including Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyine.
“This is to prevent future religious or racial conflict from happening in our country,” explained Thet Swe Win, organizer of a volunteer group known as Pray for Myanmar.
But this may prove an ambitious goal in Myanmar, which is reeling from one of its worst years of sectarian violence.
More than 125,000 stateless, mostly Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State remain displaced following two rounds of communal conflict in June and October 2012, resulting in 167 deaths, according to government estimates.
Over 8,000 people remain displaced following Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the town of Meiktila, in central Myanmar in March of this year. Over a thousand homes and buildings, including mosques, were damaged or destroyed in the violence, and more than 40 people were killed. A state of emergency was declared on 22 March.
Rumours of possible further violence continue to circulate, leaving many communities in this multi-ethnic nation of 55 million on edge.
Although the situation in Meiktila is gradually returning to normal, tensions persist in other parts of the country. Security incidents were reported in March in Gyobingauk, Nattalin, Okpho, Thegon, Yamethin and Zigon, all townships in Myanmar’s central Bago Region, and in some parts of Yangon, according to a 17 April report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The government announced a curfew in seven townships of Bago Region - Min Hla, Moenyo, Okpho, Nattalin, Gyobingauk, Zigon and Thegon - and in four violence-affected townships in Meiktila District - Meiktila, Thazi, Wandwin and Mahlaing.
Many worry the violence could undermine the democratic reforms being undertaken by President Thein Sein, who, in just two years, has been instrumental in lifting Myanmar out of decades of international isolation.
“Our country is in a transitional period. We can’t let any conflict happen. Otherwise, our country could be derailed,” said Mya Aye, part of the 88 Generation Students, a prominent activist group that takes its name from an 8 August 1988 uprising led by students against the former military government.
Respected by both the public and the government, the group is working to calm tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meiktila.
“We can’t let the country go back to the previous situation because of this kind of conflict,” Mya Aye said.
But many are wary.
“I am concerned that simmering tensions remain, even if on the surface the situation may have temporarily calmed,” Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), told IRIN. “The root causes are complex, but it is clearly more than just 'sectarian' violence. Deep-rooted prejudices exist.”
Myanmar has a long history of ethnic and religious discrimination, including attacks on minority groups like ethnic Indians and ethnic Chinese. Some discrimination has been state-sanctioned: the long-marginalized ethnic Rohingya were stripped of citizenship by a 1982 law, while Christians have long faced discrimination in advancing in government and the military, say activists.
Rumours and allegations
“People need to be fully aware so they aren’t manipulated by anyone to create or participate in this kind of bloodshed,” said Win Htain, a lawmaker of Meiktila Township.
He and others say they believe outside instigators may have been at work in the Meiktila conflict.
“People always lived in peace and harmony before. This was a group of people who systematically planned to create such a thing, using false information, hate speech and rumours,” insisted Aung Myo Min, director of Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. “The problem is no one knows who is behind it.”
Some speculate hardliners within the government may be pulling the strings, pointing to similar incidents allegedly carried out by the former military government. The previous government used sectarian conflicts to divert attention away from calls for democratic reforms, they claimed.
According to some eyewitnesses interviewed by IRIN, many of those involved in the Meiktila violence were not from the area.
“We were attacked by strangers we had never seen. They didn’t even look like the people in our area,” said Daw San San, a Muslim resident who said she and her family only survived because they were protected and sheltered by a Buddhist monk - an experience shared by others.
“Buddhists and Muslims in our area were very friendly. Never had there been any fighting between us,” she added.
A diesel vender outside the town, who asked not to be identified, said he had been instructed by a group of monks to fill the tanks of about 50 motorcycles to carry them and an angry group of Buddhists to Meiktila from another town.
A way forward
There is now broad agreement that the government should do more to promote peace.
“The current government should take a lead role in establishing a society in which people understand each other’s religions, accept multiculturalism and let all kinds of flowers blossom in a garden,” Mya Aye said.
In both Rakhine State and Meiktila, rights groups accused government security forces of standing by while the attacks took place.
“It is vital that firm action is taken to bring the perpetrators of violence and hatred to justice, to stop the spread of anti-Muslim and extremist Buddhist propaganda, and to ensure the rule of law and order,” said CSW’s Rogers.
Religious, political and community leaders of all backgrounds must speak out against hatred, intolerance and violence, he added.
“It will be a challenge to persuade and unite people from both sides to forgive each other and live in peace and harmony like before,” said Tin Oo, a madrassa teacher in Meiktila. “No matter how hard it is, this has to be done. This is the only option: for us to live in peace and harmony.”
It is a message echoed by the president: “Our society has overcome many difficulties and challenges together so we can emerge as a society in which multiple races and religions coexist harmoniously,” Thein Sein said in a televised speech marking the country’s traditional New Year on 14 April. He urged all Burmese to work together to build on the country’s political changes with “patience, tolerance and persistence.”
*This story was amended on 20 April to reflect the historical context of discrimination