Over the past six months, the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar, which last year seemed confined to the western Rakhine (or Arakan) State, has exploded all over the country. The violence has spread to places in central Myanmar, like Okkan and Mktila, to the outskirts of Yangon, and even to towns in the northeast, like Lashio, with little history of inter-religious tension. The nationalist, xenophobic, fascistesque 969 Movement of the monk Ashin Wirathu appears to be gaining followers. The New York Times recently reported that Wirathu’s sermons now are attracting thousands of followers, and that it is planning to set up school for Buddhist children across the country.
In a further unsettling sign, the Myanmar government appears unwilling to back up its tough talk about the violence with any action that would honestly apportion blame to the people causing the unrest. This week, the security forces announced that they were arresting two Muslim women for supposedly creating the unrest in Okkan earlier this year, in which mobs of Buddhists attacked Muslim shops and homes. The Muslim women allegedly argued with a Buddhist monks in Okkan, setting of violence. Yet observers on the scene in Okkan and other sites of violence like Mktila noted that many of the Buddhist gangs appeared to be prepared in advance for any altercation, with plenty of arms, earth-moving machinery to dislodge Muslim homes, and petrol bombs for burning. In addition, human rights groups and Burmese activists have noted that many of the Buddhist mobs appear to have links to longstanding paramilitary groups in Myanmar, which in past worked with the army to maintain order and military rule.
In Okkan, Lashio, and other towns, the authorities still have many Buddhist suspects in custody for their alleged roles in the violence. Yet as of now, almost no Buddhists have been charged, a situation similar to what happened last year, when only a tiny handful of Buddhists were charged for the massive violence against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State. The government needs to demonstrate even-handed behavior in its prosecutions in Okkan, Lashio, and Mktila, to avoid appearing that it is actually condoning the violence – and thus encouraging more attacks.