Myanmar’s democracy marred by ethnic strife

Myanmar’s democracy marred by ethnic strife

Myanmar’s democracy marred by ethnic strife

A soldier stands guard during a ceremony marking Myanmar’s 68th Armed Forces Day at a parade ground in Naypyidaw. Myanmar is struggling to cope with ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists. AFP Photo

Religious and ethnic tensions running high in Myanmar boiled over far outside the country’s borders on April 5, when Buddhist fishermen and Muslim asylum seekers from the country brawled with knives and rocks at an Indonesian immigration detention center, leaving eight dead and another 15 injured.

The melee broke out in North Sumatra province, where more than 100 Rohingya migrants and 11 Buddhists accused of illegal fishing were being housed together. Witnesses told police the clash started early April 5 after a Rohingya Muslim cleric and a fisherman got into a heated debate about sectarian violence that erupted last month in central Myanmar when mobs of armed Buddhists torched Muslim-owned homes and shops, killing dozens and forcing thousands to flee.

Insults were traded, and the cleric was allegedly attacked by a fisherman, said Yusuf Umardani, the detention center chief. The conflagration then escalated so quickly that security guards were too late to stop the violence.

“Most of the dead victims suffered severe head injuries. Apparently, they fought using anything that they could get, rocks, wood, chairs and knives,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Hundreds have been killed and more than 100,000 left homeless in clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The violence first erupted last year between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine and left scores dead and tens of thousands, mainly Muslims, displaced. Last month’s disorder was the worst since that time, as at least 43 people were killed.

Chaos ‘inevitable’

The tensions have tested Myanmar’s fledgling reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalization after nearly half a century of military rule. President Thein Sein’s spokesman said a degree of “chaos” is inevitable as the country undergoes a transition to democracy, appealing for unity in the wake of deadly religious violence. Presidential spokesman Ye Htut conceded the end of decades of authoritarian military rule two years ago had laid bare sectarian fault lines in the ethnically diverse nation formerly known as Burma.

“We cannot avoid this time of chaos but what we’re trying to do is create a good legal framework to overcome all these challenges,” he told Agence France-Presse in an interview in the capital Naypyidaw.

“We need to strike a balance between freedom and responsibility of the society.” Ye said the wave of hate speech was the ugly by-product of new freedoms allowed by the reformist government. “In the past, the military tightly controlled the press and the political movements,” he said. “With freedom of expression we have found out that there were was a lot of hate speech, extremist religious ideas, racial discrimination.” Since taking power two years ago, Thein has freed hundreds of political prisoners, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party into mainstream politics and liberalized swathes of the economy. In response, the international community has rolled back many of the sanctions imposed in response to past human rights abuses, and promised huge sums of development aid and foreign investment.