Hard-liners in Myanmar’s government are deliberately instigating communal violence in the country in a bid to derail democracy and maintain their grip on power, according to a report released Monday by a U.S.-based rights group.
In its report entitled “Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots,” Justice Trust documents what it said was the use of organized gangs of armed men to commit anti-Muslim riots under the guise of spontaneous mob violence.
“This report shows what most Burmese have known for a long time—that religious hatred between Buddhists and Muslims is being stoked by hidden hands and manipulated as a pretext for maintaining their grip on power,” Thein Than Oo, a Mandalay lawyer who serves on Justice Trust’s steering committee, said in a statement.
“We have seen this script many times before—the deployment of plainclothes forces … rather than uniformed soldiers to commit national-scale political violence, and the scapegoating of minorities to divert public attention away from the country’s real needs.”
Based on six months of research by local and international lawyers, Justice Trust’s report analyzes the July 2014 riots in Mandalay and compares them to previous waves of communal violence.
The anti-Muslim violence over two nights in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s second largest city left two people dead and about a dozen wounded, as well as motor vehicles and shops ablaze, following online rumors that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman.
The riots followed a common pattern found in previous instances of communal violence, the report said, including allegations of honor crimes, violence incited by gangs believed to be outsiders, the failure of law enforcement to prevent violence and the legal system to punish perpetrators, and suspicious timing of the incident to divert attention from popular demands for justice and democracy.
But unlike previous riots, where large mobs developed and violence spun out of control, Justice Trust said residents in Mandalay refused to participate, while local monks, activists and journalists tried to contain the situation.
“Without the protective cover of a sympathetic crowd, the outside agitators were exposed, the stage-managed nature of their violence was made visible to the public, and the overall damage was limited,” the group said.
“The case of Mandalay therefore provides the clearest evidence yet of a deliberate political strategy to foment anti-Muslim violence, as well as the best example of countering this strategy through a local early warning system to mobilize an immediate on-the-ground response,” the report said.
Justice Trust cited eyewitnesses to the riots who said they were carried out by “a small group of men on motorcycles” who “rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods.” The violence took place “in plain view” of armed riot police who watched the mayhem unfold “without taking action.”
It said the failure of police to act against the rioters was mirrored by the government’s failure to address the hostile environment created by the ultra-nationalist Buddhist 969 movement, which claims Myanmar’s minority Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority.
Deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims throughout Myanmar has left at least 280 dead and tens of thousands homeless since 2012, and rights groups say Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence—many of them ethnic Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
Justice Trust said 969 leader Wirathu played “a direct role” in inciting the violence by personally engaging in anti-Muslim preaching events or social media campaigns just prior to major outbreaks of rioting against Muslim communities in Rakhine, Meiktila, Lashio, and Mandalay.
“The close nexus between his speech and ensuing criminal violence in these specific events is prima facie evidence of incitement,” it said.
“Failure by the Government to conduct an impartial investigation and take appropriate legal action will further encourage extremists to break the law.”
But the group also cautioned against suggestions from the international community which places blame for the violence on Buddhist chauvinism.
“Latent religious divisions certainly exist and are being exploited and exacerbated by hate-mongering nationalists and opportunistic politicians,” it said.
“But to make the leap from hate speech to wanton murder and destruction requires an additional factor—armed groups funded and trained to commit criminal violence for political ends.”
Influence of hardliners
Those political ends involve undermining progress towards democratic reform and maintaining the behind-the-scenes influence of hardliners linked to the country’s former military junta, which handed power to President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in 2011, the report said.
So far, these “hidden hands” have been successful in widening communal divisions, fostering insecurity that threatens elections set for later this year, and shifting the narrative of Myanmar’s political opening from reform to reaction, it said.
“The incitement of religious violence, from Rakhine state in 2012 to Mandalay in 2014, has revealed the power of former junta hardliners to control the script of Myanmar’s political transition,” said Roger Normand, executive director of Justice Trust.
“The Government must fulfill its public promises to protect all people and hold accountable those forces who are instigating communal conflict for political ends.”
In its report, Justice Trust called on civil society to develop local responses to counter the strategy of instigating communal conflict, and for the government to fulfill its duties to uphold the rule of law and protect all people equally, regardless of race or religion.