Mynamar: Kristallnacht in Myanmar

International Herald Tribune

Not one bullet was fired, not one smoke bomb was dropped as scores of Muslims were attacked and some were burnt alive in Myanmar last week. The security forces just looked on. In a country where they routinely use brute force against political dissidents, villagers who protest land grabs and even monks, their passivity was sadly revealing.

The violence stemmed from a trivial row over a broken gold clip between a Muslim jeweler and a Buddhist customer last Wednesday morning. The brawl, which left the Buddhist customer with an injury to the head, happened in Meiktila, a trading town of 100,000 people at the center of the country, with an army base and no history of sectarian violence. The town’s Muslims have no links to the stateless Rohingyas in western Myanmar; they have a long and peaceful lineage here.

Still, by that same afternoon anti-Muslim mobs were destroying the Muslim gold shops of Meiktila’s market area. Then, in revenge, local Muslims stabbed to death a monk traveling from a nearby village. That murder in turn unleashed a killing spree of Muslims on Wednesday night and over the next two days. “Any Muslim, old or young, including babies, was killed that night,” Myo Htut, an eyewitness, told me this week.

“A Muslim man around 40-years-old had his legs tied to a motorcycle and was dragged on the road. Since he was still half alive after that torture, the crowd beat him up with sticks and then burned him on the motorcycle.” Myo Htut estimated that the death toll from the three days of violence reached around 200. State media put it at 40.

Other witnesses I spoke to described wild mobs — including saffron-robed monks with sticks and knives — hunting down Muslims and torching entire blocks, including at least five mosques, in Muslim neighborhoods.

When on Thursday I asked a junior police officer in Meiktila how all of this could have happened in the presence of government forces, he said, with distinct unease: “We received an order to do nothing but extinguish fires. Obedience is more important than anything else in our service.”

It took the government three days to declare a state of emergency and send in the army. That did stop the violence in Meiktila, but since then attacks against mosques and Muslims’ property have continued to spread across the country.

More than a week after the violence started, just this Thursday, President Thein Sein explained that government forces had been ordered not to intervene because he did not want to “risk any possible endangerment of our ongoing democratic transition and reform efforts.”

This is hard to believe. For one thing it doesn’t explain why, short of using lethal force, the police didn’t fire warning shots or throw smoke bombs. For another, the government has not fundamentally softened its policies about state-sanctioned violence: In the same speech on Thursday, Thein Sein also said, “I am firmly committed to using the power vested in me by the Constitution to deploy our security forces and to use existing laws to prevent and protect the life, liberty and security of my fellow citizens.”

At least he’s not fooling anyone. The Islam Council, based in Yangon, has issued a statement saying the violence had been premeditated to create discord between Buddhists and Muslims. U Sandana, a middle-aged Buddhist abbot in Meiktila, told me that many of the Buddhist monks involved in the violence were strangers to the town.

U Sandana also explained that the government seems to have had a stake in portraying the clashes as sectarian outbursts. Although the worst of the violence appeared to have been triggered by the revenge killing of that Buddhist monk, he said, in fact “it occurred only because there was a complete absence of law enforcement and the authorities just looked on with their arms folded.”

(There were, indeed, acts of solidarity in the midst of the violence. I met an old Buddhist man, a retired policeman, in Meiktila who was carried away to safety by his Muslim neighbors when the anti-Muslim mobs began their arson attacks.)

So what explains the government forces’ unusual passivity?

One theory is that the leaders of the nominally civilian government that now runs Myanmar — high-ranking army generals and the leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development party — deliberately allowed the chaos in order to justify the continued importance of the armed forces.

Another suspicion is that the government actually wants to derail political reform for fear that continued progress at the recent pace would mean free and fair general elections in 2015 — which most likely would mean a landslide victory for the party of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s the “possible endangerment” Thein Sein really is worried about.

For more information, please click here.