Myanmar must embrace minorities
October 11th, 2013
09:21 AM ET

Myanmar must embrace minorities

By Jim Della-Giacoma, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jim Della-Giacoma is the Asia Program Director of the International Crisis Group. Its report ‘The Dark Side of Transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar’ was published on October 1. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Myanmar’s transition has been remarkable, but it has also been tarnished by violence against its Muslim community. Indeed, these deadly attacks pose a threat to Myanmar’s nascent democracy, as well as its image regionally and internationally.

Visiting Rakhine state, where violence took place this past week, President Thein Sein said: “It is important not to have more riots while we are working very hard to recover the losses we had because of previous incidents. The Rakhine state government needs to cooperate with the people to avoid more conflict by learning from the lessons of previous riots.”

More needs to be done. Improving police capacity with better training and equipment is one important element, and outside expertise and assistance can accelerate the necessary changes.

But the answer to resolving this difficult issue can also be found in each and every town in Myanmar. The country’s Muslim community is diverse and found in all cities, most towns and many villages. In addition, Myanmar’s Muslims have long been intimately entwined with the country’s commercial life, and there is a high and lingering financial cost to violence when part of the commercial district of a town is destroyed. For example, attacks on the Muslim community left Meiktila's markets depleted, kept visitors away and cut access to the informal financial system.

Rising Burman-Buddhist nationalism and the growing influence of the monk-led “969” movement, which preaches intolerance and urges a boycott of Muslim businesses, is a dangerous combination of populism wrapped in religious respectability. The considerable frustration and anger built up during the country’s years of authoritarian rule need to be directed away from a negative campaign focused on one of the country’s minorities and channeled toward a more positive vision of a democratic, tolerant, and prosperous country. Politicians for their part need to give more hope to constituents and prey less on their fears at what is an uncertain time.

More from GPS: 10 steps Myanmar must take

Myanmar also needs to delegitimize hate speech masquerading as economic nationalism. Such language is anti-democratic, will encourage violence, cause instability and undermine much needed economic development. A society that is open, multi-ethnic and multi-religious will be one that makes the most of its limited human resources rather than encouraging the flight of people with much needed skills, languages, capital and entrepreneurial flair.

More than any other issue, the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim population is being watched closely in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world as the country will soon host the Southeast Asian Games and then chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The global spotlight will therefore be focused not just on Myanmar’s athletes, officials, and diplomats but on the still evolving system of government and emerging political culture. The treatment of minorities is the yardstick by which the country’s democracy will be measured, and the welcome openness since the creation of the civilian-led government in March 2011 is now exposing Myanmar to new levels of international scrutiny, as well as greater expectations in terms of adhering to international norms and standards for democracy, policing, human rights and rule of law.

The inter-religious violence that started in northern Rakhine State in June last year spread – as many around the world had feared it might – because the authorities did not act firmly and transparently against the perpetrators. Local security officials were unable to restrain a community angered over not only a dispute at a neighborhood shop, but also the brutal killing of a monk. A lack of trust in law enforcement prompted citizens to undertake their own retribution, with fatal and potentially long lasting consequences.

The fact is that authorities were unprepared and failed to uphold criminal law, protect all citizens and stop perpetrators of violence regardless of their ethnicity or religion, and rather than use legal force to restrain such lawlessness, they used almost no force and exercised little authority, with deadly results.

The police failed at many levels, but fixing this inadequate response starts at the top. The president announced a “zero tolerance” approach to what he called “senseless, irrational behavior.” This needs to be followed up with clear orders down the hierarchy that prioritize the protection of all people in Myanmar without the excessive use of deadly force.

In some recent incidents in Mandalay and Sagaing, the message seems to have been received. Response time by authorities, including the police, has apparently improved. Intercommunal conflicts triggered by similar assaults, accidents or trading disputes have been more quickly addressed and without the massive destruction and death toll seen in elsewhere.

Myanmar's leaders need to be clear and the police firm without being repressive, while the country’s political figures and religious leaders must think carefully about what they say. If Myanmar gets this wrong, then everybody will lose out because a violent, unstable, and bigoted country is a place that no one wants to visit or invest in.

But if Myanmar can get these changes right, then it will reap the rewards – not just in terms of medals, accolades, tourists, and investment, but by achieving peace and stability within its borders.

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Topics: Asia • Myanmar

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    Nice Globalist propaganda , but the facts are different. Typical example why multiculturism does not work in most countries. It was their country till immigration created problems. France should study this phenomenon because in some years to come the French will go under.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • alf564

      You are correct but not only France but all of Europe because we must be friendly with this scurge

      October 13, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  2. Mr. T. Bag

    Google terms like: "Burmese, Chin, community, midwest" –Church groups in places like Indiana are bringing in 10s of thousands of them. –They're given good jobs, houses and cars...

    October 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  3. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do.

    October 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  4. RareRationalism

    not able to post :(

    October 11, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  5. RareRationalism

    I get a kick out of meddling human rights advocates telling peoples to embrace aggressive alien hordes to their breasts as brothers, when the ultimate 'intent' of those hordes is to over-run your country, religion and culture.

    The Bangladeshis would be exterminating the Burmese or chasing them back over the border to their homeland Burma if the reverse was true. Let the Burmese deal with the Rohingya problem themselves without foreign interference.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
    • intisarulislam1@gmail.com

      Wow "RareRationalism." You're sure not living up to your name. What people like you and the radical Mad Monks of Myanmar are doing right now is spreading hysteria with your empty lies. All your nonsense of Muslims trying to "overrun" your customs is old news – it's the same pattern of racists blaming all of their failures on a helpless minority. Myanmarian officials are complacent in this ethnic cleansing of Muslims in your country, and the UN should indict these idi0ts, along with the freaky Monk movement for their incitement of genocide and for their crimes against humanity.

      October 13, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Intisarul Islam

      Wow RareRationalism – You're sure not living up to your name. What people like you and the radical Mad Monks of Myanmar are doing right now is spreading hysteria with your empty lies. All your nonsense of Muslims trying to "overrun" your customs is an old trick – it's the same pattern of racists blaming all of their failures on a helpless minority. Myanmarian officials are complacent in this ethnic cleansing of Muslims in your country, and the UN should indict these idi0ts, along with the freaky Monk movement for their incitement of genocide and for their crimes against humanity.

      October 13, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Reply
      • alf564

        Yea right, the only good muslim is dead

        October 13, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  6. RareRationalism

    Bengali muslim south asians (Rohingya) have their homeland in irresponsibly over-populated Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

    Burma/Myanmar Buddhists have their own homeland.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  7. RareRationalism

    What if the reverse was true, and Bangladesh's economy was being high-jacked by Buddhist mafia clans and cliques ? What would the muslim hordes in Bangladesh do to the Burmese 'invaders'.

    I think we know what muslims do to kafirs. Not only white Christians are 'kafirs to muslims, all non-muslims are dirty and inferior kafirs.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  8. RareRationalism

    There was a very small Rohingya population (under 80, 000) in Rakhine State for a few hundred years, but the preponderant increase in the muslim population have come from recent Bengali Bangladeshis escaping their over-crowded country into Buddhist Burma starting when under British rule.

    October 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  9. RareRationalism

    The muslim south asians and chinese control much of the economic lifeblood of this Buddhist nation.

    October 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  10. BurmeseAmerican304

    Zakaria. If you question 969 movement, please speak out on 786 movement also. Muslims may claim that this is for their dietary needs. But why is 786 movement spread to all aspect of muslim commercial lives? If a mosque encourate muslims to buy from 786 shops, is it wrong for a temple to encourage buddhists to buy from 969 shops?

    October 12, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  11. BurmeseAmerican304

    To be on record, some 969 leaders are extremists and acting like muslim terrorists.

    October 12, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  12. j. von hettlingen

    Myanmar makes international headlines now and then with its ethnic conflicts. In 2012 religious violence broke out in Rakhine state and the Muslims are the victims.
    In 2009 more than 4,000 ethnic Karen in eastern Burma had fled to Thailand after renewed fighting between Burmese government forces and Karen rebels. Thai authorities wanted to get rid of the refugees.
    Many Buddhists are sheep in wolf's clothing. They allied to the Burmese military.

    October 13, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  13. Ex muslim

    ROhigya muslims are bangladeshi muslims intruded in land of Budhists, alla bangladeshi muslims were hindu before converted into islam by invading arabs in hindu land. Not a single indan paki and bangladeshi muslims are original, they are converted from Hinduism into islam by force by arabs. Islam is curse to humanity.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:15 am | Reply
  14. Ex muslim

    WHy dont u ask islamic coutnries tot give freedoma nd equal rights to non muslims farid? always speaking against non muslims, why dont ur islam kuran hadith and sharya allow equal rights to non muslims. Islam fofllowers are terrorists and cant be considered as humans.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:19 am | Reply
  15. Ex muslim

    Muslims canot conssidered humans anymore. They are dehumanised barbarian, no matter who that person is.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
  16. Ex muslim

    Family 18 Hindu forced intot Islam in pakistan last week, as they ahd no choice but to convert to protect their lives, why dont u speak against it farid?

    October 14, 2013 at 1:42 am | Reply
  17. Ex muslim

    Three Hindu girl docors abduced in pakistan and forced to marry Muslims and converted them to islam by allah terrorists, why dontt u hav guts to speak against them Farid?

    October 14, 2013 at 1:43 am | Reply
  18. Ex muslim

    125 christians killed on sunday few days before by allah terrorists, why dont u speak and teach secularism to kuran followers faird?

    October 14, 2013 at 1:43 am | Reply
  19. Ex muslim

    Three Jihad by muslims throughout the world against every single non muslims 1. Population Jihad 2. Love JIhad3. Actuall terrorist bomb blast Jihad

    October 14, 2013 at 1:52 am | Reply
  20. Ex muslim

    Speak for non muslims inhuman treatment in your shariya , kuran ruled islamic countries, u a$$$hhole.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:59 am | Reply
  21. Ex muslim

    Islam is burden on humanity, it dehumanises human very successfully, wake up non muslim before its too late and you will hav to follow shariya one day.

    October 14, 2013 at 2:01 am | Reply

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