Myanmar: Can the religious violence be ended?

There is renewed violence in western Myanmar, where Buddhist rioters stand accused of attacking Muslims in Rakhine state. The recent violence left at least four men and a 94-year-old woman dead, according to a police official.

This whole situation … in all of Burma has been escalated to a point where people are extremely paranoid … and all it takes one cleverly placed rumour, or random event, to spark the violence, and the authorities are also responsible for this, because one of the most notorious people online inciting hatred and violence against muslims  is Ye Htut, who … is a director of the presidency office and … also functions as the presidency’s spokesman.

Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of Altsean-Burma

This time there is a new target in the violence – the Kamans – another Muslim minority group. They too are victims of widespread ethnic tensions with the country’s Buddhists.

Since June last year at least 240 people have been killed in the fighting between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and around 140,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Rohingya Muslims have been described by the United Nations as ‘virtually friendless’. And attacks against Muslims are now overshadowing the widely praised political reforms that led to the end of the military rule in 2011.

Myanmar’s government insists it has a zero tolerance approach to religious violence, but it is accused of not doing enough to crack down on such violence that has left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

Muslims account for around 4 percent of Myanmar’s 60 million population. But many of them are thought of as illegal immigrants by the government and some of them do not hold citizenship.

Rakhine state in western Myanmar is where most of the Muslim minority live, and this is the area where more than 70 houses were burnt down by rioters on Tuesday.

The religious bloodshed coincided with President Thein Sein’s two-day tour in the violence-racked area as part of his first official visit to Rakhine state since a wave of violence erupted there last year.

“Our international reputation was damaged [by the violence] but our explanation to the United Nations and to countries in our region, convinced them to understand us. The most important thing is we shouldn’t allow these things to happen again,” said the president.

And over the past year, Rohingya have been attacked in other parts of the country too.

So, is the government capable or even willing to end the unrest? And what is behind all these waves of violence?

To discuss this, Inside Story with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and specialist on Burmese affairs; and Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of Altsean-Burma, the Alternative Asean Network on Burma Human Rights Network.