by David Kalmats

Violence that has been occurring on a routine basis since the June of 2012 spilled into October. Muslims in the coastal town of Thandwe started the month by evading mobs of Buddhist men whom, armed with machetes raided a string of villages with the intent of inflicting damage to Muslim mosques and any home not marked with a Buddhist flag.[1] Military officials were able to put a stop to the attacks by the morning of October 2nd. In this particular string of violence, which has become routine, at least five people were killed and hundreds were displaced.[2]

Residents of the area claim that just months before this incident controversial Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, often accused of inciting violence, against Muslims gave a speech in this region.[3] It is evident that Wirathu and the 969 movement have a significant degree of support in the area as is clear by the billboards seen hanging throughout the village.[4] Following the violence, Burmese president Thein Sein travelled to the area that experienced much of the sectarian violence since June 2012.[5] Despite the continued attacks, Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have still been reluctant to make an outright denouncement of the 969 movement. The refusal to denounce Wirathu and the 969 movement by Sein and Suu Kyi is likely due to the fact that neither side wants to risk alienating key support within the predominately Buddhist nation. If Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi genuinely disapprove of the violence occurring on a regular basis, perhaps the most effective strategy to curve it would be to make a joint statement of condemnation. This would ensure that neither side loses any ‘political’ clout, but at the same time makes it clear that moving forward Burma will not tolerate the status quo regardless of who is leading the nation.

This month Burma also experienced a bombing which took place at the Traders Hotel in Rangoon on October 14th. The attack resulted in one hotel guest being injured. The hotel blast came as part of a string of bombings between October 11th and 14th.[6] Police investigating the incident believe that the series of bombings were the work of one person or of one group. However, since there are “many groups harbouring decades of resentment” it is very difficult to pin point exactly who is responsible at the moment. [7]

On a somewhat brighter note, President Thein Sein also announced on October 21st that his government has plans to release all political prisoners within the country by the end of the year.[8] Critics suggest that such a goal is not possible to achieve by the end of the year. It is also important to note that the stated goal of releasing political prisoners would not necessarily lead to an improvement on the ground. In violent incidents such as the aforementioned acts, many observers believe that local authorities have tolerated, if not complicit in targeting the Muslim minority.

Burma in the Eye of the International Community:

Over the past few months the internal strife, mainly in the form of violence targeting the Muslim minority in the country, has been slowly garnering the attention of the international community. In response to the attacks that occurred as October began, the government of the United States condemned the violence.[9] This came in the form of a statement released by the US embassy in Rangoon in which the Burmese government has been urged to “respond quickly and decisively” in order to protect its citizens and hold the perpetrators accountable.[10] In order to most effectively pursue change within Burma, the United States along with other nations within the region need to continue making clear that all citizens within Burma need to be protected and that targeted attacks against a particular group are unacceptable. Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists certainly has the potential of spreading to other countries and it would be in the interest of nations within that region to pursue a peaceful resolution.

United Nations (UN) special rapporteur Tomas Ojae-Quintana also released his much anticipated report on the human rights situation in Burma during the month of October. In the 23 page report the Burmese government received some recognition for releasing political prisoners in the country, but is also being urged to ease restrictions on protests and ensuring that ceasefires between ethnic groups are being enforced.[11] Burma’s representative at the UN dismissed the report as being one-sided.[12]

Going forward, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the situation as a whole in Burma. While there is a need to be alarmed by the continued violence and inequity of human rights within the country, there is reason to applaud some of the improvements that have taken place in the country since the end of military rule.

The potential for economic development in Burma perhaps offers the greatest glimpse of hope that the ethnic tension can be resolved. President Thein Sein is certainly attempting to send the message that the Burmese economy is “open for business.”[13] Corporations such as Nissan and Suzuki have expressed interest in doing business within the country and Coca-Cola has already opened a bottling plant.[14] The biggest impediment for investors looking to put their money in Burma is the lack of infrastructure and concerns over political uncertainty.[15] The political uncertainty is most definitely linked to the violence occurring on a weekly basis. If the international community is able to continue adding the necessary pressure to Burma, there is a possibility that the economic development that is occurring could lead to a more democratic environment as well. Therefore the end goal for the current government of Burma should be to achieve a country where Muslims are not ostracised and targeted by extremist elements. In the moment it might be politically convenient for Thein Sein and his government to tolerate what has been occurring, but the credibility and long term stability in the international community is at stake if a peaceful resolution is not actively pursued.