Myanmar: Violence in Meikhtila

06 Apr, 2013    ·   3874

Sampa Kundu discusses the implications of the riot for the Thein Sein government

More than 40 people have been killed in Meikhtila (or Meiktila), during March 2013 in the violence between the majority Buddhists and the minority Muslim minority. Last year, there were two rounds of violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State killing more than 100 people.

What does the sectarian violence mean for the Thein Sein government, which took office after a general election two years ago? Why are the Muslims being targeted in a country where more than 90% of the population profess Buddhism, which is symbolised with peace and love?

Religion plays a central role in Myanmar and thereby, religion based discrimination and violence are not new. The socialist government under General Ne Win and the successive military rulers have nurtured Buddhism and directly or indirectly neglected, and often marginalised, the ‘others’ who were not ‘original’ Burmese/Myanmarese. During the Ne Win era, such discrimination happened against the Indians living in the then Burma, in the name of nationalism and protection of indigenous culture. So, what is happening now in Meikhtila or in other parts of Myanmar is just a continuation of that campaign’s relic.

Today, a section within the majority group is continuing the propaganda in order to re-ensure their leading position in socio-economic and political life. It was not the common people or the Buddhist monks who started the riot in Meikhtila, rather, provocations from the so called elite class worked as an instigation behind the riots. In fact, the alleged involvement of ex-military officials, or their relatives, in the Meikhtila riots just proved that religion is still being used as a tool to divide the population on the lines of their identity. However, in the case of Meikhtila, all these are allegations and therefore need to be proved.

Strategic Importance of Meikhtila
Meikhtila is situated in Central Myanmar, nearly halfway between Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital of the country, and the old imperial city of Mandalay. Therefore, any law and order derogation in the city is of strategic importance, as it enjoys much stronger capacity to affect the country's internal security situation than a border state. Meikhtila also houses several armed forces offices, including the air force’s central command. Therefore, the government was on high alert as the riot spread in other cities and towns including Yemethin, Opko, Tatkon, Lewei, Nattalin, and Zeegon. The last two are just 190 km away from Yangon, the country’s busiest and most important city.

Impact on the Government and Reforms
Is Myanmar truly transiting towards democracy with all the problems relating to the Kachins, the Rohingyas, and now Meikhtila? Since 2011, President Thein Sein has taken several attempts towards democracy, including the release of the political prisoners, participation of Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the by-elections held in 2012, the formation of the National Human Rights Commission to protect the rights of the citizens, the unification of the exchange rate of Kyat, the return of the World Bank, consultations with the International Monetary Fund, amendments to the old foreign investment law, attempts to make microfinance options accessible to the citizens, and, reforms in the education and health sectors are some of the measures worth mentioning.

Unfortunately, ethno-religious extremism raises doubts over the administrative capacity of the government, and its goodwill to control such volatility. After two consecutive days of the riot, the President declared local emergency on Meikhtila. The local police and army who were trying to mitigate the violence sheltered the displaced Muslims at a local city stadium in Meikhtila, and the displaced Buddhists were given refuge at local police stations and monasteries. President Thein Sein, in his address, issued a stern warning to use force to protect the lives and safeguard public property.

The President’s address was hugely acclaimed as he expressed similar discontent for the rioters, irrespective of their religious identity without mentioning the name of any religion. Also, his strong stance against the violent mob helped in pacifying the riot. By this way, President Thein Sein has been successful in handling the riot. But the question prevails, what action was taken by the local administration to stop the spread of violence? Probably the government needs more capacity building in terms of riot and armed violence management.

International Implications
So far, the international community’s approach towards Myanmar has largely been shaped by two factors - its internal political situation, and vast potential as one of the world’s last economic frontiers. In both these factors, the Thein Sein government has been active in building confidence in favour of Myanmar. Therefore, despite incidents like Meikhtila, international trade and investment communities will continue to conduct business with Myanmar. But such religious extremism, if tolerated now, might prove harmful for the country’s national development process in the long term. Further, the spread of Buddhist-Muslim religious rivalry would escalate tensions in the Southeast Asian region, where they share majority-minority relations between themselves. Therefore, the issue needs to be handled sensitively.