Lessons from Myanmar

Saturday, 23 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The burning thread of sectarian violence knits together many countries. As Muslims in Sri Lanka prepare for a peaceful protest next week to speak out against the recent rise of extremism in this already scarred country, it is timely to take warning of similar eruptions elsewhere in the world and attempt to stop violence from spiralling.

One does not need to look far to understand how deep the dangers are from religious violence. Unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar has reduced neighbourhoods to ashes and stoked fears that last year’s sectarian bloodshed is spreading into the country’s heartland in a test of Asia’s newest democracy.

International media reported that buildings in Meikhtila were still burning early on Friday and agitated Buddhist crowds roamed the otherwise near-deserted streets after three days of turbulence. Five people, including a Buddhist monk, have been killed and dozens wounded since Wednesday, State media had reported. Other authorities put the death toll at 10 or higher.

The unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military rule that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist Government of one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries. Jailed dissidents have been released, a free election held and censorship lifted in Myanmar’s historic democratic transition. But the Government has faced mounting criticism over its failure to stop the bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims.

Hundreds of Muslims have fled their homes to shelter at a sports stadium, said local officials. The unrest is a bloody reprise of last year’s violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, which officially killed 110 people and left 120,000 people homeless, most of them stateless Rohingya Muslims. Stunned residents had told media that they had never expected such violence and blamed Police for not exerting an enough influence to stop roaming vigilante groups.

The United Nations warned the sectarian unrest could endanger a fragile reform program launched after Myanmar’s quasi-civilian Government replaced a decades-old military dictatorship in 2011. “Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace,” Vijay Nambiar, UN Special Adviser of the Secretary-General, said in a statement.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about five percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large and long-established communities in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities, where tensions are simmering.

Such devastation is good reason for Sri Lankans to stop and listen. It should also, ideally, inspire them to move in a more moderate space and reject calls from extremist groups that are disturbingly mushrooming as if infected with a growth serum.

The call by the Muslim Rights Organisation for a peaceful protest can be viewed as an attempt to convey the deep discontent and insecurity faced by this community. Yet, given that ethnic tensions are suddenly on a fine knife edge, it could also, mistakenly, be construed as an attempt to add more pressure.

Be that as it may, the escalation of ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka cannot be allowed and the Government has to step in urgently to preserve law and order so that minority rights are not sacrificed for the vested interests of a selected few.