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.
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.