Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been wracked with political and social turmoil since it fell victim to a military-backed coup d’état in 1962. Many nations around the world have never formally recognized the ruling military junta, and the United Nations has repeatedly condemned the Burmese government for numerous human rights violations. Recently, however, the military authorities in Burma have relaxed their hold on the internal and governmental affairs of the Southeast Asian country, releasing famous human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, and allowing her to meet with American President Barack Obama last year. As a result, Burma has been able to reestablish diplomatic and commercial ties with many nations, including the United States, Japan, and members of the European Union.
Despite the progress being made by Burma’s government, there are many social issues that must be resolved in the troubled nation. Last month, the town of Meiktila in the southern region of Mandalay was almost completely destroyed by sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims. The bloody conflict started as an argument between a shop owner and a customer, but it soon escalated into something much greater. Local police and soldiers lost control of the increasingly volatile situation as members of the two religions rioted throughout Meiktila and neighboring towns for two days, destroying property and committing appalling acts of violence. As many as 40 people were killed, and over 61 were wounded. In addition to the loss of human life, over 850 buildings and homes were destroyed, including mosques and other places of worship. The conflict resulted in the displacement of over 12,000 people in the Mandalay region, many of whom are now staying in makeshift refugee camps.
Unfortunately, the spat of violence that took place in Meiktila last month was not an isolated incident. Since June 2012, over 150 people have been killed throughout Burma in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. While the conflicts were previously confined to the small state of Rakhine on the western coast of Burma, the violence in Meiktila, which is located two states over in Mandalay, clearly shows that unrest is growing.
But what exactly is at the root of such senseless violence in a country that until recently seemed to be making such significant progress towards democratic reform? Some suggest that the religious strife might even be a result of the reforms themselves. Because the people of Burma were previously barred from congregating or protesting in public, it seems reasonable to assume that this new sense of freedom and security has unleashed discontent and sparked tensions that were previously only able to be expressed in private. In addition, systemic instances of discrimination against Muslims in Burma have reached unprecedented levels. This incessant discrimination has resulted in much unrest among the Islamic population in Burma, which has in turn contributed to much of the sectarian violence.
What can the government of Burma do to end the violence that is marring the lives of its citizens? Ironically, much fault lies with the military regarding failures to curb religious violence. It was reported by Human Rights Watch that last year in the Rakhine state, government forces not only failed to stop Buddhists from attacking Muslims, but they in fact participated in the brutal attacks themselves. In order for these clashes to stop, the Burmese government must exert greater control over the actions of deployed troops to ensure that military involvement in sectarian conflicts does not continue. In addition, the government must work harder to foster a dialogue between local Muslim and Buddhist leaders. Without first promoting peace at a local level, Burmese officials cannot possibly hope that their nation will progress to become more peaceable on a national level in the near future.