Tensions between Burma's Buddhists and Muslims have flared up again, this time in Meiktila, a town in central Burma. A brawl between a customer and a seller in a local market on March 20 triggered a fight that broadened into a full-fledged sectarian riot. State-run media reported that 32 people died in the violence. The government announced a curfew for Meiktila and two nearby towns. For the moment, the situation in Meiktila appears to be under control. It should come as no surprise that most of the lives and property destroyed so far belong to Muslim residents of the community. Independent observers said that the damages -- including the death toll -- are likely higher than the government's report.
There are some credible reports that security forces have been slow in constraining the violence, and the police special branch seems to have done little besides recording video footage of the scene. Firetrucks ignored Muslim homes that were burned down by the mob.
Meanwhile, rumors of the anti-Muslim attack spread to other major cities, including Rangoon, where a major commercial area was shut down on Monday due to fears of attacks.
Although the government probably isn't responsible for causing the violence, several observers say that members of the ruling elite -- either hardliner elements in the military or the ruling political party -- have instigated and effectively exploited it to their own ends. In fact, the latest religious bloodshed should not be seen as an isolated incident, but as part of a recurrent pattern of violence that started in June 2012 in Burma's western Arakan (Rakhine) State. So far the conflict there between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have killed about 200 people and displaced 120,000 villagers, mostly Muslims.
Since then, an anti-Muslim campaign has spread to other cities, including a neighborhood in Rangoon. Some extreme elements within the Buddhist community have called for boycotts against Muslim-run businesses; others have organized anti-Muslim groups, such as the ironically-named "969 Movement," after the nine qualities of Buddha, the six qualities of Buddha's teaching, and the nine qualities of the monastic order. Anti-Muslim propaganda, including pamphlets, religious sermons, DVDs, and Facebook posts, is abound. Some elements in the local media and political parties have been active in promoting anti-Muslim sentiment. For instance, a powerful Arakan ethnic party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), wrote in its news bulletin that some inhumane actions, such as the Holocaust or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can be justified by imperatives of racial survival and national sovereignty.
At first, such attitudes were mostly restricted to the margins of the public sphere. But the fringe has now seized the mainstream thanks to the failure of the country's political leaders -- both the ruling military as well as the pro-democracy movement -- to take a clear moral and political position against the violence.
President Thein Sein, an ex-general, proposed that the Rohingya problem be solved by deporting them en masse: "We will send them away if any third country would accept them." When asked if the Rohingyas are Burmese citizens, Aung San Suu Kyi, the moral exemplar of the pro-democracy movement, simply said that she did not know. Aung San Suu Kyi shifted the blame to Bangladesh, saying that illegal immigration from that country lies at the root of the problem. Most of Burma's Muslims have lived in the country for generations, and understandably reject such a position as sheer demagoguery.
Aung San Suu Kyi has even said that she will refrain from applying any kind of "moral leadership" by taking sides in the communal unrest. In this respect, her actions reveal quite a bit of continuity with the ruling military. Both sides prefer to concentrate on security solutions to what is, in fact, a fundamentally political and moral problem. Regarding the ongoing religious flare-up in central Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi preaches the virtues of expediency. According to one of her aides, Aung San Suu Kyi has urged the regional police chief to act decisively. "Don't sit by and watch," she told him, according to an account published by The Irrawaddy magazine. "Act in accordance with the law."
(To be fair to the pro-democracy movement, one of its other leaders, the former student activist Min Ko Naing, has played an extraordinarily positive role, releasing a statement calling for an end to the violence and blaming those who instigated the riots. Members of his organization, the 88 Generation Group, contacted Buddhist monks and community leaders and made an immediate trip to Meiktila to give material and moral support to the local population.)
What Burma needs right now, in fact, is leadership along the lines of what then-Senator Barack Obama displayed during his presidential campaign in 2008, when he gave a speech on race at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The presidential candidate refused to be a political opportunist, saying: "I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork." Instead, he went on to observe that "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."
Obama took on his own base and even his own pastor, Reverend Wright, who had spoken sympathetically of anti-white resentment within the African-American community: "Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive. Divisive at a time when we need unity; racially-charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems that confront us all." Obama posited that the nation can be "perfected" only if people concentrate on the goals that unite them rather than the grievances that divide them.
Of course, no one would ever expect that one speech by one leader is enough to solve problems deeply rooted in history. But, as Obama's example demonstrates, you cannot make progress without frank and honest discussion of stubborn societal problems. This kind of moral and political leadership is precisely what Burma urgently needs.
History shows us that the process of liberalization can lead to populism and nationalistic violence in societies where institutions are weak. Burma currently displays a range of such weaknesses: widespread poverty, deeply entrenched elite interests, and irresponsible use of freedom of speech. Such challenges can be overcome only with strong leadership from those in power as well as those who aspire to it. As things stand now, however, Burma's elites are failing the country.
Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images