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Burma Must Find a Path to a More Tolerant Society

By Burma Partnership  •  July 8, 2014

7 July Kyaw Thu Yein The IrrawaddyThe streets of Mandalay, which just recently drew over 20,000 people in support of National League for Democracy and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society’s joint campaign to amend Section 436 of the Constitution in support of democratic reform, remain deserted this last week as many business owners closed their shutters in fear, following serious unrest in the city. In the second largest city in Burma, violent mobs took over the streets, leaving two people dead and dozens injured. Some stated that over “70 police were here but did nothing,” as Buddhist mobs torched a school in a Muslim area. Ironically the international community has mostly stayed silent in the wake of the recent events when their actions are needed to protect the people of Burma, especially the most vulnerable communities, more than ever.

The series of events began on 1 July, just hours after the extremist Buddhist monk, and leader of the anti-Muslim 969 movement, Wirathu, picked up a questionable post from the social media site Facebook that highlighted an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman committed by two Muslim brothers. According to David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, appeared to have played “a pivotal role” in inciting the unrest, fanning tensions by spreading accusations with religious inferences, while calling for action against the two Muslim brothers who own a teashop in the same area where his monastery is located.

Within hours, hundreds of Buddhists, including monks, gathered in front of the teashop, despite the lack of credible evidence. Even though a thousand police personnel had been deployed to stop the riots, two people, one Muslim and one Buddhist man, were violently murdered and dozens more were injured in the four days following the initial outbreak, while a nighttime curfew is still in place nearly a week after the beginning of the violence.

During the funeral of the Buddhist man, the hearse was decorated with a banner designed to incite even more violence as it drove through Pathein Gyi Township, just outside Mandalay. The banner depicted a picture of the deceased man in a pool of blood with a caption stating that the man was “brutally killed by Muslims on the night of July 2.” The procession was joined by a mob of angry Buddhists wielding swords and bamboo sticks, who set fire to a Muslim section of the cemetery and shouted “we’re going to kill all the Muslims.” The police were not present at the funereal procession. Though the police guarded the predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the city, they did not make any efforts to disarm the Buddhist mob with weapons.

This recent violence in Mandalay is yet another chapter of a history of sectarian violence fueled by pre-existing stereotypes about Muslims, and set ablaze by political tension in Burma. This ideologically complex and deeply rooted social, political and cultural issue requires the humanity of all people of Burma, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion, to join together to end the violence that is spreading throughout the country and ensure that the rights of all people are respected and protected.

Most importantly there must be a political action by the State against such sectarian violence. However, there is a distressing pattern in the way the police handle these violent outbreaks considering that last year, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana, cited 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, including by well organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.” According to the former Special Rapporteur, “this may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the State or implicit collusion and support for such actions.” If Burma hopes to transition towards democracy, they must not look the other way as these deadly violent acts take place with impunity.

While the international community is focused on the seemingly positive reforms, the situation of Muslim Rohingya population in Arakan State has deteriorated to a point where some say elements of genocide are taking place as they remain in internally displaced camps in deplorable conditions, still without sufficient humanitarian aid. So far in Mandalay, only eight people have been arrested for the sectarian violence, which started nearly a week ago. Even more worrying is the growing extremist Buddhist movement and its hate speech and propaganda against Muslims that are spreading across the country, and the government has taken no measures against such movement. The international community, including investors, donors and governments, must demand a clear account as to why the Mandalay regional government, as well as the national government, is unable to take action against the culprits. As stated by United to End Genocide in their call to stop the sectarian violence and hate speech in Burma, the international community must “make it clear that the government of Burma will be held fully accountable for how it responds.”

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