Burma’s simmering religious tensions flared in its second biggest city, Mandalay this week, as Buddhists and Muslims clashed over reports of an alleged rape involving a young Buddhist girl and a Muslim man. Clashes between mobs of men of both communities occurred on the nights of 2 and 3 July before the authorities imposed a curfew. As usual with Burma’s communal violence, the plot thickens as the dust settles, and it appears as if the violence was not just an organic eruption of communal resentment but another incident in a tableau of nationwide religious tensions.
Two people are reported to have died in this weeks clash, a Buddhist man working for the multi-faith Free Funeral Service, and a Muslim man. Police sealed of the area in downtown Mandalay around the site of the violence, a teashop allegedly owned by the two suspects in the rape case, and in some cases moderate Buddhist monks tried to calm down the crowds and urged them to return home and avoid violence. Some reports claimed many of the Buddhist antagonists appeared not to be locals, fuelling rumors the violence had some measure of organisation.
There are two elements that make the incident both murkier and more political. First, there is a previous rape case involving a Buddhist man, who is a supporter of ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu, that sparked demonstrations earlier this week at a courthouse in Mandalay, according to an activist involved in defending the alleged victim of the assault. This may have been the spark in pre-planned violence against Muslims in downtown Mandalay.
Second, democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit Mandalay this Sunday for a rally on constitutional reform, and it is probably no coincidence that a fake memo from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party circulated throughout Facebook in Burma claiming the NLD was planning on taking advantage of the riots to protect Muslims. It’s no secret U Wirathu is against amending Section 59(f) of Burma’s 2008 constitution which would permit Suu Kyi’s eligibility to be president. So the question hangs: was this another case of organic, spontaneous religious violence, or an orchestrated piece of a broader political puzzle utilising racism ahead of Burma’s 2015 elections?
Putting this week’s violence in Mandalay in perspective with three other recent events; a ministerial sacking, a religious property dispute, and four proposed religious and family laws, paints a disturbing picture of an impending collision between church, state and society as Burma’s much lauded reform process looks decidedly shakier.
Sacked ministers, raided monasteries
The religious turmoil in Myanmar took a bizarre turn in June 2014 as the president sacked his religious affairs minister and appointed advisors to help him with four controversial religion laws. U San Hsint, the controversial Religious Affairs minister, was sacked by President Thein Sein in late June, ostensibly for corruption, but more likely for his long criticism of the government and his mishandling of a property dispute involving prominent leaders of the Buddhist clergy, or Sangha. U San Hsint is now in custody pending an investigation over his alleged misuse of state funds. But the former general and speaker of the Irrawaddy region parliament has a long track-record of speaking out against corruption within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, and reportedly for defying Thein Sein’s directives. State media announced he had been permitted to “retire”, a local euphemism for being purged.
U San Hsint was criticised for his fumbling efforts to mediate a resolution of a longstanding dispute over ownership of Rangoon’s Maha Thanti Thukha monastery, which was raided in early June by police special branch and members of the ministry of religious affairs and the Rangoon region State Sangha Maha Nayakaw committee, or grand council. Five monks were arrested and detained before being granted bail, including a British national, Burmese monk Sayadaw U Ottara. The opposition to government claims of ownership of the monastery is spearheaded by one of Burma’s most revered monks, Penang Sayadaw U Pyinnya Wuntha. The government has been deeply embarrassed by the incident, and U San Hsint is being cast as the fall guy to take responsibility whose sacking will politically extricate the government from the controversy. Few commentators believe that the sacked minister was anymore corrupt than his peers, many of whom are more notorious for their predatory greed than U San Hsint.
At the same time, the president’s office announced the appointment of two presidential religious advisors, former diplomat Sein Win Aung, who is the father-in-law of Thein Sein’s daughter, and Thura Myint Aung, a decorated former army officer loyal to the president who was disgraced after his inept handling of the security operation to clear a protest site around the disputed Letpadaung copper mine in upper Burma. That security operation resulted in scores of monks being badly injured.
The State Sangha Maha Nayakar committee, comprised of elderly abbots, is widely seen as an ineffective tool of the government, and their involvement in the Maha Thanti Thukha monastery dispute enraged activists monks such as U Wirathu, one of the leaders of the ultra-nationalist and anti-Islamic 969 movement, and the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, or in Burmese, Ma Ba Tha, who are supportive of the sacked religious affairs minister. It was U Wirathu’s threat to gather thousands of monks to protest that compelled the court to release the five monks on bail.
Restrictive religious laws
Part of the recent ministerial and advisory reshuffle is evidently predicated on providing the president’s office with more loyal advice on the four religion and marriage laws that have been proposed by the 969 movement and the Ma Ba Tha. These drafts include laws on religious conversion, inter-faith marriage, polygamy, and family planning. The state media released the government’s first draft of the bill in late May to receive public feedback. The law would permit significant state regulation over matters of religious faith at a time of growing Buddhist and ethnic Burmese ultra-nationalism. This has been a factor in rising violence against Burma’s stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, following communal clashes in western Arakan state in 2012, in which hundreds of people died, and from which an estimated 180,000 mostly Rohingya are still displaced in deplorable living conditions. The concern is the law could also serve as a trigger for more episodes of violence against Muslim communities in central Burma like those seen in the past two years that have killed scores of people and displaced thousands, and in last week’s violence in Mandalay.
The growing tensions between the government and activist monks comes as Burmese civil society is pushing back against the racist agenda of the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements. In May, 97 Burmese human rights groups issued a strongly worded statement decrying the proposed marriage law, which evinced numerous threats against the organisers who were also denounced by U Wirathu as "traitors". President Thein Sein has previously defended Wirathu as a patriot, which makes the recent sacking of U San Hsint and the showdown with prominent monks even more perplexing. Burma’s fragile reforms are stalling on almost every front, as apprehension over the 2015 elections, deadlock over constitutional amendments, tightening media freedoms and military belligerence on issues of land confiscations and the bogged-down peace process make life more difficult for average people.
The role of some members of the Sangha in vitriolic objectification and in some cases incitement to violence against Muslims is a stark departure from decades of the clergy’s role as a barometer of social discontent, especially during the 2007 protests against military rule violently crushed by the security forces. Buddhist monks have in recent months called for boycotts of various events involving Muslims, including exhortations to boycott the services of phone company Ooredoo which is a Qatari stated owned business, and even violent threats against a documentary about inter-faith friendship at Rangoon’s recent Human Rights, Human Dignity Film Festival, which caused the film to be pulled.
How these recent events involving ministers, monks and repressive laws relate is still a matter for mounting speculation in Burma’s notoriously opaque political system, but they indicate considerable blowback for the government for using the Sangha as a stalking horse for stoking communal tensions. The government and many key political figures such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has voiced muted criticism of racist speech, permitted the intervention of ultra-nationalist and anti-Islamic voices into national debates since 2012, perhaps believing they could instrumentalise racism and threats of violence from monks and lay supporters. But they are now reaping the instability that the unleashing of paranoia and hate predictably has produced.
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