Winners and losers in Myanmar violence
Wayne Hay is an Al Jazeera’s roving correspondent covering the Asia-Pacific region.
The lack of transparency, justice and clear policy is fuelling the violence and tension in Rakhine state, and providing plenty of room for speculation around Myanmar about the reasons for the fighting between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists.
We know that three Rohingya men were arrested and convicted for the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl at the end of May. We know that 10 Rohingya men were butchered five days later in an apparent revenge attack by Buddhists.
No one has been arrested for those killings and what has followed is a series of violent events which has seen more people killed, thousands of houses and other buildings burned down and around 100,000 people left homeless.
The government response has been weak, providing ammunition to those who believe elements within the political system are complicit in the crisis. Let’s face it: If the power brokers in the country really wanted to stop the conflict from the very start, they could have.
It wasn’t that long ago that the former military regime was brutally cracking down on any sort of overt dissent and, even though there is now a partially civilian government in charge, many of the same people are still running the country.
The government could have, as it has in the past, filled the streets of Rakhine state with soldiers in an instant. It says it has increased security around the region, but the visible presence of soldiers is minimal.
There are political undertones to the situation that tend to indicate it’s more than simply communal tension boiling over.
It’s easy to forget under this new dawn in Myanmar that there are still hardliners within the system, including the military, who are seeing their power and influence eroded by this thing called democracy.
They would argue that the armed forces are the only people who can keep the peace in Myanmar and a perfect way to prove that would be to, not necessarily start a conflict, but to not stop it, and possibly even encourage it to grow into something much larger than it should have.
Connected with the army is the country’s largest political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, whose leadership is made up entirely of former army generals, including some hardliners.
The USDP has a huge problem on its hands called the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NLD is extremely popular and proved that by winning the 1990 election in a landslide only to be prevented from taking over the country by the military. It then won most seats in the by-election in April signalling that the USDP is in trouble ahead of the next general election in 2015, if a free and fair vote is held.
The above mentioned may seem completely irrelevant to the ongoing tensions in Rakhine but on social media in Myanmar, speculation has been rife since early June that some people maybe seizing upon the violence to strengthen their positions and perhaps reclaim what they once had.
Key to that speculation was a mysterious meeting between top USDP official and former general Aung Thaung and a young Buddhist monk, known for his anti-Muslim stance.
Wirathu spent more than 10 years in jail for his involvement in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2001 in the city of Mandalay. He was released late last year as part of the new government’s round of amnesties.
Then, after the April by-election in which the USDP suffered an embarassing setback, Wirathu received a visit from Aung Thaung, a man known to be close to former dictator Than Shwe.
Photos emerged of what was a highly unusual meeting between a leader of the country’s ruling political party and an ordinary monk, famous only for his anti-Muslim sentiment.
So why did they meet? No explanation has been forthcoming but after the violence started in Rakhine, Wirathu was again at the forefront of rallies by monks who took to the streets in support of the President Thein Sein’s statement that those in the Rohingya community who are not legal citizens of Myanmar should be detained and then sent to another country.
What does the USDP have to gain from the fighting in the west?
Maybe hardliners would say the unrest proves that Myanmar is not ready for too much political change at once.
Maybe they would say Myanmar needs the “steady” hand of people who have experience in running the country, and not someone who has plenty of experience as an activist, but little experience as a politician.
Suu Kyi in dilemma
The fighting also puts Aung San Suu Kyi in a very difficult position. She’s long campaigned for human rights, the rule of law and justice. Now she’s working within the system as a member of parliament and the world expects her to continue to do those things, particularly when hundreds of thousands of people in her own country are being increasingly marginalised.
Her response has verged on non-existent. She’s made a few weak statements such as saying she won’t use “moral leadership” to back either side.
Those old hands within the USDP and the army who are resistant to change will be enjoying watching how the NLD leader handles the situation.
They know she’ll be coming under pressure from foreign governments and human rights organisations to say more in support of the Rohingya, but at the same time she knows that if she criticises the Rakhine Buddhists, she risks losing a lot of domestic support in a country where the Rohingya are largely seen as illegal immigrants.
Losing that support, means losing votes. Maybe she’s beginning to learn what life is like as a politician in a country still fresh from being a military dictatorship, instead of being a democracy campaigner.
We will perhaps never know the truth behind the fighting in Rakhine but what we do know is that the residents of that part of the country, Muslim and Buddhist, are the losers and the international community is hopefully learning that these are still very early days in “democratic” Myanmar and forces resistant to change can still play a big role in determining the country’s future.