Myanmar Erupts In New Round Of Religious Violence

Homes and vehicles destroyed in the recent rioting (Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

A new spate of religious violence has engulfed Myanmar, with mobs of Buddhist civilians clashing with their Muslim neighbors and little to no intervention from the Myanmar government.

The latest round of fighting began in the city of Lashio two days ago near the Chinese border. Rioting began after a Muslim man allegedly “torched” a Buddhist woman, setting her on fire after covering her with gasoline. The woman is currently recovering in the hospital, according to local television, while the man has been arrested. A crowd of Buddhists reportedly surrounded the police station to demand the man be turned over to them, which the police refused.

In response, the mob set about attacking Muslim-owned shops and setting several buildings on fire, including mosques and a Muslim school. The government put a curfew into place on Tuesday evening, hoping to contain the violence. Instead the rioting continued on Wednesday, with crowds of Buddhists gathering to hurl stones at buildings, marching with iron rods and sticks brandished, and an orphanage among the structures burned to the ground. State television reported at least one death and four injuries in the violence thus far, while claiming that calm had been restored, despite eyewitness reports of ongoing violence.

The troubles between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar first flared up last October in the state of Arakan, where the majority ethnic Arakanese population sought to remove the disenfranchised Rohingya group living within its borders from their communities. The former are majority Buddhist, while the latter are almost entirely Muslim.

During that event, the Myanmar government did little to protect the Rohingya from the surge of violence, during which at least 70 were killed in just one day, instead offering at times overt support for the local campaign. The level of complicity on display led Human Rights Watch to warn of an “ethnic cleansing” taking place within the country.

In March, the state of Rakhine was the location of a new flare-up, when an argument over the cost of a piece of jewelry erupted into waves of violence that killed at least 44 people, spurred on by hardline Buddhist monks. According to the United Nations, more than 12,000 Muslims were forced from their homes during that conflict. Video from the BBC shows police officers standing idly by while Muslim shops and houses were set on fire, further demonstrating the government’s seeming unwillingness to protect Muslims.

Throughout all of this, there have been no members of the Buddhist majority charged with crimes, though seven Muslim men have been sentenced to prison for taking part in the March clashes. Meanwhile, over 120,000 Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims alike are still living in refugee camps from the October violence, with the government moving at a glacial pace to meet its promises on reconstruction aid.

Adding to the tensions, the Rakhine government has recently handed down a ruling related to the Rohingya, limiting the number of children they can legally have to two. Under the Myanmar legal system, the Rohingya are technically stateless, with the vast majority of the population regarding them as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. While opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has also condemned the provision limiting children, she is a less than strident advocate for the Rohingya. In a recent interview, her spokesperson confirmed that she will not champion the Rohingya’s rights, and that she believes that there “is no Rohingya ethnic group.”

President Obama met at the White House with Myanmar President Thein Sein last week, where the violence against Muslims was one of the topics discussed. “The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop,” Obama said with Thein Sein at his side, “And we are prepared to work in any ways that we can with both the government of Myanmar and the international community to assure that people are getting the help that they need but, more importantly, that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term.” Despite that pledge, the Myanmar government appears to be doing little to end the violence ongoing today.