Are invisible forces orchestrating Myanmar’s anti-Muslim violence?

The military has much to lose from democratic reforms and may be using the bloodshed as a way to reassert control.

The Buddhist Rakhine consider Muslim Rohingya to be Bengalis and have directed most of the sectarian bloodshed at them, writes Francis Wade [EPA]

Myanmar’s president made his first trip to the violence-hit town of Thandwe last week, days after a 94-year-old Muslim woman was slain by Buddhists in a nearby village. Spurred on by an unrelated argument between a Muslim political leader and a Buddhist taxi driver two days prior, a mob approached her home in a nearby village on October 1. Her daughter managed to escape, but returned to find a charred house and a mother with cuts to her neck, head and stomach.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar later quoted President Thein Sein as saying that he had suspicions about the nature of the Thandwe attacks, where close to 100 houses were razed. “Ethnic Rakhine [Buddhists] and ethnic Kaman [Muslims] have been living here in peaceful co-existence for many years,” he said. “External motives instigated violence and conflicts. According to the evidence in hand, rioters who set fire to the villages are outsiders.”

For someone who has demonstrated such ineptness at confronting head-on the anti-Muslim violence over the past 16 months, the statement is surprising. In it, he finally appears to acknowledge that organised networks of Buddhist extremists are operating in Myanmar.

It’s something that observers have long suspected: the method and style of attacks in Rakhine state, Mandalay region, Shan state and beyond, have been eerily similar, with small trigger events causing mobs to form quickly and descend on towns en masse, weapons already prepared. In most cases, police have stood by and watched, and often locals at the scene have claimed the mobs are formed of “outsiders”. A photograph taken near Thandwe this week shows a truckload of armed men sporting red bandanas,which appears at odds with the idea that these groups are just rabbles of aggrieved local civilians.

The role of Buddhist monks in advocating violence against Muslims has also taken many by surprise, although monks were also involved in attacks on mosques during anti-Muslim violence in 1997.

Not a new phenomenon

If there is an organised element to this, then it raises the question of who, and why. There’s no clear answer, but powerful forces in Myanmar, particularly the military, would benefit from this unrest. On several occasions in the past few decades, violent clashes directed at an ethnic minority group have coincided with political sensitivities in the country: the 1967 anti-Chinese riots, when the military orchestrated attacks on Chinese-owned properties, in part to distract from General Ne Win’s damaging mismanagement of the economy; and in 1988, when attacks on Muslims broke out in Taunggyi and Prome as anti-regime protests swept the country. Many at the time believed the military had sought to inflame ethnic tensions in order to split what could have otherwise been a cohesive anti-regime front.

Can this theory be applied to Myanmar today? Thein Sein’s democratic reforms will have unnerved the military, which receives more than one-fifth of the total state budget. With moves towards democratic rule, questions are asked of the colossal resources channeled to the armed forces, and whether its position as the patriarch of Myanmar society is still relevant. This week, the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party warned that the country would be in “serious danger and face consequences beyond expectation” if the constitution was overhauled. One of the main reasons the opposition has for revising the junta-drafted 2008 constitution would be to dilute the power of the military.

Societal unrest, whether it be communal tensions or ongoing conflict with ethnic armies, provides a prime opportunity for any military to reassert its waning influence. Already this has worked to surprising effect in a country where ethnic and political divides run deep. Rakhine, who have long resisted military encroachment on their state, now ask for their protection against what they see as an Islamic tide sweeping the state. Prominent members of the pro-democracy movement have said they would join forces with the army to fight off “foreign invaders”, namely the Muslim Rohingya minority. The role of Buddhist monks in advocating violence against Muslims has also taken many by surprise, although monks were also involved in attacks on mosques during anti-Muslim violence in 1997.

Rohingya, an existential threat?

There’s no smoking gun in all this, but the evolution of the conflict that began in Sittwe last June between the people of Rakhine and Rohingya suggests something beyond a localised tussle for ethnic or religious dominance. Importantly, the latest attacks in Thandwe were directed at Kaman Muslims, while the vast majority of the violence to hit Rakhine state since June last year has targeted the Rohingya, who are distinct from the Kaman. While the Kaman had until then lived peacefully in the state, the Rohingya were long seen by Rakhine as illegal Bengali immigrants, and their presence there considered an existential threat to the Buddhist population. Campaigns of violence against the Rohingya were therefore justified in the eyes of many Rakhine as a means of defending the land and preserving Buddhism.

That narrative shifted somewhat when violence broke out in Meiktila in central Myanmar in March this year. Meiktila has a Muslim population, but they are not Rohingya, as is the case in Lashio in Shan state, Oakkan in Yangon division and Hpakant in Kachin state, where subsequent deadly attacks on Muslims took place. Rather than an issue confined to one ethnic minority in western Myanmar, it has escalated to a campaign against Muslims in general.

As Myanmar academic Maung Zarni noted in a recent email, not every bout of inter-ethnic violence is state orchestrated. Genuine local grievances can and do result in fits of rage. But, says Zarni, there is a history of manufactured ethno-religious mobilisation “aimed at destablising the order in Burma since the British time”, something that independence hero General Aung San had warned of following the departure of the colonial power.

Can this anti-Muslim ideology really have spread across such vast geographical divides without the aid of an entity like the military, the only entity that can operate on a nationwide scale?

Various analysts have tried to rationalise the evolution of this latest anti-Muslim conflict by likening it to a Yugoslavia-style scenario, where ethnic tensions that were bottled for decades burst to the surface following a shift in the style of rule. This has likely played a role in Myanmar, given attempts by successive rulers since independence to undermine the legitimacy of Muslims as “real” countrymen. Fueled on by the rise of social media, the propaganda and provocation can spread like wildfire, so that Meiktila is now not so distant from Sittwe.

But there is something highly suspicious in the commonalities of attacks across the country. On Saturday, a mob gathered outside a police station in Kyaunggon, near Yangon, and demanded they hand over a Muslim man suspected of an attempting to rape a Buddhist girl a month ago. When the police refused, they torched five Muslim homes. A similar situation triggered the Thandwe riots, with police refusing to hand over the Kaman Muslim leader who was arrested in the wake of the argument.

Same tactics used by the junta?

It’s a pattern that has played out across the country, across disparate ethnic states such as the Shan, Kachin and Rakhine. In Kachin state, anti-Muslim violenceis a new phenomenon. Yet the only common thread that unites these ethnic groups’ nationalism is a resistance to Burman, and not Muslim, designs on their states.There are few other obvious synapses that bridge these vast ideological and geographical divides, and across which this anti-Muslim sentiment could pass with such speed. How then has this violent reaction to the presence of Muslims? The anti-Chinese riots of the 1960s and 1970s followed major influxes of Chinese into Myanmar, and were in part a reaction to local fears that jobs were going to immigrants. This pretext for the violence cannot be applied in the same way to Muslims.

It is not beyond reason to suspect that an entity that is able to operate on a nationwide scale (of which there are few in Myanmar) may have a hand in current events. Only two hold this position – the military, and the Sangha, the religious council that administers Buddhist institutions and which, given the historic importance of Buddhism to societal cohesion in Myanmar, has its own vested interests in stemming the growth of the country’s Muslim population. So rather than being particular to Thandwe, Thein Sein was echoing something that victims of anti-Muslim violence elsewhere have said, essentially that there is a seemingly invisible force orchestrating the early stages of these attacks.

Who, exactly, it isn’t clear. The popular anti-Muslim 969 movement has been traced back to the religious affairs minister under the former junta, but the wider 969 sentiment is alive and well in government today: even Thein Sein, considered a comparative moderate, has publicly called for the removal of the Rohingya, and considers the 969 doctrine, despite its intrinsic links with the violence, to be a “symbol of peace”. Last week, Shwe Mann, the powerful speaker of the Lower House, said: “I appreciate the attempts of the Rakhine people to protect Myanmar,” which feeds the narrative that Bengalis are trying to take over the country’s westernmost state, and must be repelled.

Consequently, it’s not too giant a leap to suggest the government could at least be accommodating whatever forces are mobilising mobs to torch Muslim neighbourhoods. If that’s the case, however, why would Thein Sein himself hint at this? Again, there’s no clear-cut answer, but what’s been a surprise to many observers is the disunity in government, with even the military-appointed MPs not always voting as one bloc. Thein Sein appears to want the country to move forward, but others in his cabinet evidently want to retain the control they had under military rule.

Some of the tactics seen in the anti-Muslim violence are similar to those used by the junta, with the “outsider” mobs reminiscent of the plain-clothed civilian militias like Swan Arr Shin, which were used so effectively by the generals to stir up violence and confuse allegiances during peaceful protests. Factor in the numerous reports of police inaction, and even instructions not to intervene until well into the second day of violence in Meiktila, and the picture grows murkier.

Rather than being a case of either/or, what may have occurred is a synthesis between two major interests – those of an embattled military-political elite with willing collaborators in the Sangha and in Rakhine political parties, and those of a civilian population indoctrinated to consider Muslims as lesser or non-citizens.

One feeds the other, and together work in perfect harmony: military or political leaders looking for a pretext to reassert control in a rapidly evolving country would see the undercurrent of anti-Muslim attitudes in Myanmar society as a classic divide and rule opportunity – help manufacture a threat, and jump in to save the day. It serves as both a PR coup in the face of domestic criticism of the security state in Myanmar, and helps split and weaken society – again a boon for the military. This tactic certainly has historical precedence in Myanmar, and may well have been reinvigorated by a military that today has much to lose from democratic reform.

Francis Wade is a Thailand-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.