BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Communal unrest in Myanmar could escalate unless the predominantly Buddhist country confronts rising intolerance and anti-Muslim rhetoric, a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned, as fresh violence against Muslims left at least one person dead.
The government and society at large must “do more to combat extremist rhetoric, in public, in the media and online”, said “The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar”, released on Tuesday.
“At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry.”
The latest violence started following a minor disagreement on Saturday between a Buddhist motorcycle rider and a local Muslim politician in Rakhine state, the flashpoint of unrest since June last year.
Media reports say houses and a mosque were burnt down by Buddhist gangs in three villages around Thandwe township, and a 94-year-old Muslim woman who was unable to flee was slashed to death.
At least 237 people have died in sectarian violence since June 2012, and more than 150,000 have been displaced. The vast majority of the victims were Muslims.
“The depth of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, and the inadequate response of the security forces, mean that further clashes are likely,” said the ICG, which has regularly praised Myanmar’s transition from a military junta to a quasi-civilian government and last year even awarded the president and former general Thein Sein for his efforts to bring peace to Myanmar.
The rise of communal violence threatens to complicate Myanmar’s transition and damage its standing in the region and beyond, the report warned.
While anti-Indian and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar is not new, the availability of modern technology means “both legitimate grievances and bigoted intolerance can now be expressed more openly” and extremist views can spread more rapidly and widely, it said.
MONKS AND VIOLENCE
Anti-Muslim rhetoric is spread in part by radical Buddhist nationalist groups and a small but vocal group of extremist monks linked to the so-called “969” movement - numbers symbolising the attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood.
A local Muslim student in Thandwe told Reuters that the supporters of the movement had been playing 969 songs in front of the town hall for a month before the latest unrest.
In September, the top Buddhist regulatory body in Myanmar refused to give the movement any religious status, a sign ICG called encouraging.
“If influential moderate monks do not speak out clearly and repeatedly against the violence, the Myanmar people and the world will only hear voices of intolerance. This would be hugely damaging for the country and the religion,” the ICG report said. “It is important that extremist voices do not go unchallenged, and that communities have access to a wider range of alternative views.”
Although a central tenet of Buddhism is non-violence, ICG said incidents in Sri Lanka, southern Thailand and other Buddhist countries show Buddhism and Buddhist monks can become vehicles for violent ideologies and actions.
Nearly all the leaders of the staunchly Rakhine nationalist Arakan Liberation Party armed group, which signed a ceasefire in April 2012 and has been implicated in the 2012 violence against Muslims in Rakhine, were former monks, ICG said.
IMPACT BEYOND BORDERS
The violence also has regional implications, the report said.
The number of stateless Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar has risen, and tensions and violence between the communities have spilled over into Malaysia. There have been threats of jihad against Myanmar and attacks on Buddhists in the region.
“Although (Myanmar’s) Muslim population is one of the least radicalised in the region, the current tensions and violence provide a potent context in which radicalisation could take place,” ICG warned.
The group suggests providing improved riot-control training and equipment for police and more broadly reforming the police force to include officers from ethnic and religious minorities.
The violence “reflects deep societal divisions and hatred”, the report said. “Addressing this is one of the key challenges the country now faces; there are no simple solutions.”