Despite democracy, Myanmar's Muslim minority still suffering

After decades of isolation and military rule, Myanmar has begun to open up to the world. But the country's rapid transformation has coincided with an upsurge in anti-Muslim attacks, writes Joshua Kurlantzick

A Rohingya Muslim woman whose husband was allegedly killed in Myanmar, cries as she waits with others to be sent back to Myanmar at a camp of Border Guards of Bangladesh or BGB, in Taknaf, Bangladesh, Friday, June 22, 2012. Bangladesh turned back more than 2,000 Rohingyas who tried to enter the country after the deadly violence between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted this month. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
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In late May, the Myanmar president Thein Sein arrived in Washington, DC for a historic meeting with Barack Obama. The US president praised him lavishly at the press briefing that followed their summit. He lauded his leadership "in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform", before discussing joint projects that US assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. Pleased, Thein Sein replied: "I take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to … move forward so that we can build a new democratic state, a new Myanmar."

Only three years earlier, nearly every Myanmar leader had been barred from entering the US because of sanctions imposed on the country's military-ruled government. Congress regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on earth, and when former president George W Bush found himself in the mid-2000s in an anteroom with Myanmar's then-leader at an Asian summit, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge the other man's presence.Now, the situation had flipped so rapidly that many longtime Myanmar-watchers cannot keep track of the changes. While once American policymakers blasted Myanmar and its government as a tyranny, now they paint it as a model of emerging democratisation.

By the time Thein Sein arrived in May, Washington had lifted sanctions, corporate leaders were jostling to meet him and the distinguished global organisation International Crisis Group had presented the Myanmar leader with its annual "Pursuit of Peace" prize.

Other democracies around the world had lifted sanctions as well, and so much cash had already begun flowing into Myanmar that Lex Rieffel, an expert on development and Myanmar at the Brookings Institution, warns that donors are already duplicating projects, disregarding the wishes of the Myanmar government and wasting huge sums. Western and Japanese companies, which had been mostly barred for two decades by the sanctions, are arriving in droves, since Myanmar is probably the last large untapped emerging market in the world and also contains large quantities of oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources. Myanmar's latest round of auctions for offshore oil blocks attracted 59 bidders, including many of the largest resources companies in the world. Meanwhile, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi continued her own global tour. Besides stops in Washington, Tokyo and other world capitals to pick up multiple awards, she travelled to such places as Ulan Bator in Mongolia, for the annual meeting of the Community of Democracies, a global group of democratic nations.

Yet neither the cartoonish portrayals of Myanmar in the past nor today's idyllic pictures of its future are correct. While the country has taken important steps towards democracy, its opening, which began in 2010, has also unleashed dangerous forces that have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar's Muslim minority, who make up about four to five per cent of the country's 60 million people.

The attacks, which last year seemed confined to the western Myanmar state called Rakhine (also known as Arakan), have now spread. Nearly every day, the Myanmar press reports burnings, beatings and evictions of Muslims from towns across the country. These attacks have led to angry responses by some groups of armed Muslims and by several of Myanmar's large Muslim-majority neighbours. And though the government denies involvement in the pogroms and its president has issued stern warnings against future violence, a recent comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found "the Burmese [ie Myanmar] government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya [Muslims] that continues today". The Rohingya originally settled in present-day Myanmar from areas west of the country populated by ethnic Bengalis. Some are first or second-generation arrivals, but others have lived in Myanmar for centuries.

At least 100,000 Muslims have been made homeless in the past two years by violent attacks, and hundreds if not thousands have been killed, along with a much smaller number of Buddhists. Left unchecked, rising ethnic hatred and increasing attacks could push the country into a terrible period of ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar has had a long history of xenophobia and inter-ethnic tensions, exacerbated by the army's oppressive five-decade rule over the country. Outside North Korea, Myanmar was until 2010 probably the most closed nation in the world. In that year, the army began a transition to a civilian government, holding elections that helped create a civilian parliament and formally renouncing its control of the presidency.

Yet the new "civilian" president was Thein Sein, a supposedly moderate former general. In previous army commands, he had been in charge of an area in northern Myanmar notorious for rights abuses by the army, as well as drug and weapons trafficking; even today, Myanmar remains the dominant producer of methamphetamines in East Asia and one of the world's biggest producers of heroin. As regional commander, it would have been unlikely that Thein Sein did not know about these activities, notes an article in Asia Times Online, a leading regional web publication.

Still, Myanmar has witnessed enormous change in the past three years and, whatever his past, Thein Sein has been genuinely interested in promoting reform. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) swept last year's by-elections, the first truly fair elections in two decades. Parliament has become more than just a rubber stamp for the army and in the 2015 elections the NLD may well win a majority, which could theoretically put them in a position to run the country.

But this rapid shift has, as in other former autocratic and diverse states, also unleashed severe tensions. The inter-religious violence began last year in Rakhine, near the border with Bangladesh. The exact cause of the fighting remains unclear, but after rumours spread that several Muslim men had attacked Buddhist women, crowds of Buddhists began attacking areas of the state populated by Rohingya.

One of the biggest towns, Sittwe, saw its Muslim area burnt to the ground. Tens of thousands of Rohingya fled into the hills, tried to escape into Bangladesh or boarded makeshift boats to flee to Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Many drowned or were turned back by the Thai navy, which often picks off refugees' boats and then sends them back to sea to drown if they do not have money to pay the navy. (Thailand's military has historically harboured great animosity towards Myanmar and there are widespread allegations that some Thai navy men killed fleeing refugees or forced them into bonded labour.)

Last year, Thein Sein and Suu Kyi suggested that the violence was confined to Rakhine and centred primarily on local Buddhists' perceptions (right or wrong) that Rohingya were outsiders. In other words, that the violence was sparked by anger over immigration and job losses, not by religious and ethnic differences. This claim seemed dubious at the time, and the spread of violence has since shown it to be untrue.

In a statement earlier this year, Suu Kyi's spokesperson said she has little interest in supporting the Rohingya's claims for rights and citizenship - a surprising response by the Nobel laureate, a woman renowned around the world as a champion of freedom and rights. Yet within Suu Kyi's party, I have found that most activists express disdain for Myanmar's Muslims. Even the famed activist Ko Ko Gyi said that the violence in western Myanmar was the fault of Muslims themselves. Many in Suu Kyi's party even condone a government policy that has, over the past decade, limited Rohingya to two children, a rule no one else in the country has to follow. (Suu Kyi has not endorsed this policy.) Last week, Myanmar's Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi publicly backed the two-child policy for Rohingya.

Even more important, neither the government nor Suu Kyi has offered a viable plan for how to create a more federal state, which will be essential in a country with so many ethnic minority and religious groups and so little trust of the central government. In other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, which emerged from its own chaotic transition to democracy in the late 1990s, federal rule and decentralisation have been critical to reducing ethnic tensions and empowering local leaders across the country. Also, in Myanmar no prominent opposition leaders, activists or government officials have concurred with the findings that ethnic cleansing has taken place in Myanmar.

No matter the original source of the violence in Rakhine, government's ineffectiveness - or complicity in the attacks, according to HRW - seems to have encouraged anti-Muslim extremists throughout the country. In its comprehensive report on last year's attacks, HRW found that on numerous occasions of violence against Rohingya, crowds of marauding Buddhists appeared to be organised well in advance and ignored by the police, who often simply vanished once mobs started attacking and burning mosques, Muslim-owned shops and homes.

Since the violence appeared to be targeted, HRW labelled it ethnic cleansing. Its report showed that security forces participated in the attacks, burnt mosques and often prevented anyone from assisting injured and dying Muslims.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi said little. Thein Sein more recently has deplored the violence, but has taken few concrete steps to stop it. (In one speech in May, Thein Sein said the government would "take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims".) Indeed, on his watch, the police and army this year have conducted several investigations of the Rakhine attacks, but wound up primarily detaining groups of young Muslim men.

Now the Myanmar government faces far broader unrest, killings that threaten to tear the country apart and completely undermine the recent economic and political reforms.

Emboldened by the lack of action taken against marauders last year, Buddhist extremists have launched a national anti-Muslim campaign, led by nationalist monks. The campaign, called the 969 Movement (the name comes from Buddhist numerology), calls on Buddhists to avoid Muslim shops and properties and tacitly encourages evictions and even attacks. The movement's followers encourage Buddhist shop-owners to put 969 stickers on their stores, identifying them as Buddhist-run, and have at times reportedly attacked Buddhist merchants for doing business with Muslims. One 969 leader, nationalist monk U Wirathu, has given numerous interviews calling for the expulsion of Muslims from the country or worse. When he gives sermons, Wirathu now draws thousands of followers, like a nationalist rock star. In a much-covered speech in February, Wirathu told followers: "Once these evil Muslims have control, they will not let us practise our religion … If you buy from Muslim shops, your money doesn't just stop there. It will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion." Some liberal commentators have compared the movement to neo-Nazis, and in March militant monks in the town of Meiktila carried swords and knives, watching over Muslims being force-marched out of the area.

Violence has exploded across the country. Mobs of Buddhists, some with ties to the 969 Movement, have struck in the towns of Meiktila, Nay Pyi Taw, Bago and now in Yangon, the largest city. Earlier this year in Meiktila, groups of men burnt Muslims' homes and then attacked survivors, killing at least 40 people, including schoolchildren. U Wirathu publicly praised these actions. Many of the mobs also appear to have ties to several long-standing paramilitary organisations that previously worked with the army to enforce military rule, according to several Myanmar rights activists. Police provide protection for U Wirathu as he travels, as if he were a state leader.

In Okekan, another town in central Myanmar, gangs of Buddhists attacked Muslims, even though there had been few previous signs of inter-religious tension. The leading Myanmar publication The Irrawaddy reported that the gangs "appeared to be a well-organised mob, complete with scouts and checkpoints" in scenes eerily reminiscent of the organised violence of Rwanda in 1994. At least 10 people were killed in Okekan, though the exact number of deaths remains unclear.

Even in towns where there was no history of inter-religious tensions, attacks on Muslims have erupted. In Lashio, a town in north-eastern Shan State, Buddhist gangs armed with knives and petrol bombs attacked the major mosque and burnt it down in late May. Some locals claimed that the gangs had even burnt down a Muslim orphanage, although it was difficult to confirm these reports.

Thein Sein has declared states of emergency in several parts of the country, deploying the army in an attempt to stop violence, yet the army has little knowledge of how to quell protests peacefully. And though some police officers may have acted bravely, overall the authorities have either been absent during the rioting or too poorly trained to do anything. In Lashio, the government has only arrested one man, a Muslim.

Outside of Indonesia and other South East Asian nations directly affected by Myanmar's tensions, the world seems to have paid little attention to this looming catastrophe. Yet Myanmar's tensions are creating instability in the middle of Asia. Already, militants in Indonesia angry at the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar allegedly tried to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, a plot foiled by Indonesian security forces. And in the past two weeks, at least four people have been killed in Malaysia as Buddhist and Muslims from Myanmar have begun attacking each other in Kuala Lumpur. This comes just after violence between Myanmar Buddhist and Muslim refugees in Indonesia resulted in several deaths. Malaysia has this week detained several groups of refugees for fear of greater violence.

On the day HRW released its damning report, the European Union lifted its remaining trade sanctions on Myanmar. The US, other western nations and Japan see a strategic prize in Myanmar that could potentially offset China's growing power in the region: before the western democracies lifted sanctions, China was by far the largest donor to and investor in Myanmar.

The government, Suu Kyi and foreign donors that have poured into Myanmar must act rapidly and develop a plan for devolution and federal government. Thein Sein should purge senior military leaders shown to be disobeying his commands. Suu Kyi needs to be less reticent in speaking out on the rights of all people in Myanmar and on the need to halt ethnic and religious attacks.

In addition, the Myanmar government and donors need to focus incoming aid on areas crucial to restoring peace. These include creating a civilian-controlled police force, to reduce the need for army intervention in conflict areas; training young journalists to understand the need for sourcing stories; and launching mediation efforts to increase dialogue among ethnic groups and religions.

At the same time, regional governments and western donors could plan more effectively for outflows of refugees from Myanmar's conflicts. Relief agencies and wealthier nations could provide funds for temporary camps for refugees in Thailand, as well as help some resettle elsewhere abroad.

Meanwhile, the Association of South East Asian Nations could adopt a common approach to intercepting refugee boats and agree to accept people fleeing Myanmar, assured that the economic burden would not fall on them alone. Otherwise the world could be left watching, as it was in Rwanda two decades ago, as slaughter feeds upon slaughter.

Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.