Myanmar: Fresh riots between Buddhists and Muslims raise questions of leadership in the country

Updated On: Mar 27, 2013

Deadly riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, have further underlined how ethnic and religious fissures in Myanmar pose a serious threat to democratic change in the country.

Unrest and clashes that started in the  central town of Meiktila have now spread to three more towns closer to Yangon, where evening curfews have been imposed to contain violence.

Thirty-two people were killed in three days of rioting in Mandalay Region's Meikhtila last week, prompting authorities impose a state of emergency on Friday. Police have been criticised for being slow to react to violence and independent observers have said that damages -including the death toll - are likely higher than government reports. Rumours of violence have spread to other neighbouring cities, including Yangon, where a major commercial area was shut down on Monday, due to fears of clashes.

Meanwhile, a UN envoy expressed deep concern about reports of further violence in the country. The UN's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide said that the government must demonstrate that it is serious about holding accountable those who took part in the violence, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.

Vijay Nambiar, the UN secretary general's special adviser on Myanmar, also visited some of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes on Sunday. The majority of the displaced are minority Muslims who suffered the brunt of violence from Buddhist mobs roaming the city.

Leadership failure?

The latest clashes have raised questions about the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country.  Even monks have armed themselves and taken advantage of a relaxation of rules governing freedom of speech and assembly to stage anti-Muslim rallies.

Outside the government, voices of restraint during episodes of violence against minorities have been faint, even amongst opposition leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi who appear to be struggling over how to provide a balanced response to clashes, given that it is a sensitive issue.

Voices of support for ethnic causes have been even fewer, and observers have noted that both sides have preferred to concentrate on security solutions to what is, in fact, a political and moral problem.

Others say that the latest riots should be seen as part of a recurrent pattern of violence that started in June 2012 in Burma's western Arakan (Rakhine) State. Authorities were also criticised for failing to control last year’s violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Official figures say 110 people were killed and 120,000 were left homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims, of Indian and Bangladeshi origin. The Muslim population of Meikhtila is also believed to be mostly of Indian origin.

There have been some warnings of  further populism and nationalistic violence, often experienced by other liberalising countries in which institutions are weak. Widespread poverty and deeply entrenched elite interests, as well as new found laws on the freedom of speech could prove to be a powder keg for Myanmar after decades of authoritarian rule, as has happened in other newly democratic states.

News: Myanmar warns against rumours in aftermath of Mandalay riots (AsiaOne, 26 March 2013)

News: Myanmar sets fresh curfews after new violence (South China Morning Post, 27 March 2013) 

Opinion: Leadership failure in the latest wave of religious violence in Burma (Foreign Policy, 26 March 2013)