RANGOON — When President Thein Sein declared in a nationwide address that his government was investigating and taking action against those responsible for instigating religious rioting in Mandalay last month, Min Htet Nyein Chan was not impressed.
“If the instigators were found out, why don’t we know who was behind it and why they did it?” the Mandalay native said when asked for his take on the president’s monthly speech, which aired via state media on Aug. 1.
These are the questions on the minds of many Mandalay residents in the wake of the communal violence early last month between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s second largest city, claiming the lives of two men—one Buddhist and the other Muslim. The four days of rioting became the deadliest communal strife in the more than 150-year history of Burma’s last royal capital.
Now more than one month on, the government has disclosed scant details about its prosecution of those responsible, and suspicions persist that the violence was orchestrated.
The Mandalay Divisional Police Force said that as of Friday, nearly 20 people had been sentenced to prison terms varying from two year to four years for their involvement in the violence. State media said on Aug. 3 that more than 50 people had been arrested in total, and 36 others suspected of involvement remained at large.
But those figures do not convince many in Mandalay that justice has been done.
“They are just part of the problem,” said Thein Than Oo, a lawyer from the Mandalay Peace Making Committee, a vigilante group made up of community and religious leaders that was founded in the immediate aftermath of the violence last month.
“As long as you haven’t arrested anyone behind the mob who rampaged through our city with swords and clubs in their hands, you can’t say you have solved the problem,” he said.
The lawyer explained that what happened in his city was quite unusual because for all its past minor conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities, Mandalay has been known for its religious tolerance.
During the nationwide democracy uprising in 1988, Buddhist monks protected a mosque when rumors circulated that thugs backing the ruling junta of the time were on their way to destroy the building. Then, as now, suspicions were rife that religious conflict was being used to divert people’s attention from Burma’s burgeoning democracy movement.
“With the long religious harmony we have had, it’s unthinkable to have had that kind of deadly violence here,” Thein Than Oo said.
“Given what has happened in Burma over the last two years, I’m seriously suspicious that the riot here was carefully orchestrated,” he added.
Beginning in western Arakan State in 2012 and later spreading to central and northeastern Burma, religious conflicts have pitted the country’s Buddhist and Muslim communities against each other in several bouts of violence that has killed hundreds of people.
Nearly every outbreak of violence was either sparked by the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man, or a row between members of the two communities. In Mandalay, two Muslim men were falsely accused on social media of raping their Buddhist maid, a case that was fabricated by the alleged victim. The woman, whose religion was not identified, was paid by two other men to lodge the fake criminal report, according to state-run media.
In most of the incidents over the last two years, such accusations were followed by the sudden appearance of a mob, seemingly out of nowhere and armed with swords and clubs to terrorize both communities. Security forces have often been accused of dragging their feet in putting a stop to the violence.
When communal strife was raging in central Burma’s Meikhtila last year, Thein Sein admitted that “political opportunists, religious extremists and outside instigators” were responsible for the violence, and said “their efforts will not be tolerated.” The former general added that he “would not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public.”
But with the recent violence in Mandalay, Thein Sein has shied away from rhetoric suggestive of political opportunists, religious extremists and outside instigators, and the country’s most notorious monk U Wirathu—who calls Mandalay home and helped spread the false rape rumor—has avoided censure.
Critics say that in arresting dozens of individuals charged with direct involvement in the riots, authorities appeared to be discounting the possibility of a mastermind behind the violence.
The government’s failure to take action has even prompted speculation that the government itself or someone high within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) hierarchy was behind the riots in a divide-and-rule attempt to cement their hold on power.
“It’s no wonder they are under suspicion as they have failed to punish the real culprit,” said Win Mya Mya, deputy chief of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Mandalay.
The 65-year old Muslim woman said if the president had kept the promise he made post-Meikhtila, there would have been no communal clashes in Mandalay. She also blamed security forces for their failure to intervene in the Mandalay riots.
“Hundreds of thugs rampaged through the city under the gaze of the police. Then arrests followed. It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
But Mandalay Division Chief Minister Ye Myint has dismissed suspicion of a government hand in the riots, as well as rejecting accusations that the response from law enforcement was slow.
“That kind of accusation isn’t worth my consideration to respond. If you have any evidence [of government involvement], please provide it to us. It would help us to more easily solve the problem,” he said during a press conference in Mandalay in the wake of the riots.
“We caught some rioters red-handed. We also made immediate arrests to some people who spread rumors sparking the unrest,” he added.
Interestingly, the Mandalay riots unfolded amid a nationwide signature campaign soliciting popular support for constitutional reform. The two-month campaign was jointly organized by the country’s main opposition party, the NLD, and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. The clashes happened just days after the NLD announced the preliminary results, saying petitioners had collected 3.3 million signatures as of June 30.
Min Htet Nyein Chan, the Mandalay native, claimed that what happened in his city was a political ploy by the government to distract public interest from the campaign. He said it was doubtful that the communal clashes just happened to coincide with the day when Mandalay organizers planned to hold a major signature collecting event.
“We planned to hold it on July 2 and 3. But with the outbreak of the riot, we had to cancel it,” said the political activist, who helped arrange the petition campaign.
“Whether it [the violence] was in Mandalay or elsewhere, it’s taken for granted that it has had a negative impact on the campaign,” he added.
Mandalay-based writer Hsu Nget said anti-Muslim speech and false rumors on social media also played an important role in stoking religious tensions. In the aftermath of the Mandalay violence, the government said it had moved to crack down on hate speech, but no action has been taken against those spreading false rumors on social media before or during the Mandalay violence.
In Burma, anti-Muslim speech campaigns led by the radical 969 movement, including those led by U Wirathu, have gained momentum since 2012. Unchecked by the government, the movement has expanded to include a network known as the Association to Protect Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), which is lobbying for four pieces of legislation—including one restricting interfaith marriage—with the support of the military-backed ruling party.
“The government has to prevent them as that kind of hate speech has an impact on both communities more or less. Arresting those who joined the violence is not a big deal,” the writer said.
He wondered aloud whether the government was taking a page out of the playbook of the former military junta, which was known to stoke communal tensions to achieve its own political ends.
“Religion is a very sensitive issue here. So, they use it to kill two birds with one stone—to divert public attention from constitutional amendments that would allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the country’s next president. Whatever happened, they know there was no loss for them,” he explained.
Rangoon-based political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the government was solely responsible for religious violence in Burma over the last two years, the prevention of which would be increasingly important as the country approaches elections in 2015.
“They have to emphasize rule of law and protect citizens’ rights granted under the Constitution. If we have any violence again, I think it is the result of their failure to do their job,” he said.
The analyst added that the government also needed to be transparent about how it planned to tackle the problem and punish anyone responsible for the unrest.
“If they fail to do so, they will never escape from accusations of having masterminded the violence.”