Air of menace stalks Mandalay

Air of menace stalks Mandalay
A policeman on patrol in Mandalay. A nightly curfew remains in place in the city following last week’s violent riots.

Mandalay is limping back to normal after last week's Buddhist-Muslim riots. But the "normalcy" as Myanmar knew it may well be a thing of the past.

The chilling message that the mobs in Myanmar's second largest city sent out last week was: Muslims better keep their heads down.

And they are doing so.

Over the weekend in Mandalay, most Muslims closed their shops and stayed home. A nightly curfew remains in place.

The riots that erupted on July 2 followed a familiar narrative - an unverified Facebook report of a Muslim allegedly assaulting, abusing or mistreating a Buddhist sparked more inflammatory posts on Facebook. Within hours, mobs set upon Muslim homes and establishments.

There were similar riots on at least five occasions last year, mainly in central and eastern Myanmar but also as far north as Kachin state.

Last week was the first time they had occurred in Mandalay, which is the base of right-wing Buddhist monk U Wirathu. Through his "969" movement, he openly spreads anti-Muslim sentiments, seemingly without interference from Myanmar's security establishment.

Writing in The Irrawaddy at the weekend, Chiang Mai- based editor Aung Zaw wrote: "It comes as no surprise that Wirathu's hateful incitement against Muslims has gone unchecked. Photographs… have shown him receiving alms from hardline leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and others who unashamedly proclaim him a true defender of Buddhism." The USDP is the army-backed ruling party.

The government is reluctant to crack down on Buddhist extremists for fear of stoking larger unrest among the Buddhist majority. It also lacks the resources to tackle sectarian violence on a national scale, according to a Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named.

"It is also easy for extremists on both sides to stoke sectarian violence," he wrote. "There is both perceived and genuine fear of Muslims in this country."

During the Mandalay riots, which killed two men - a Buddhist and a Muslim - some shouted that it was the duty of Buddhists to destroy mosques.

Analysts say many politicians are complicit. Mr Nay Myo Wai, chairman of the small Diversity and Democracy Party, has openly called for all mosques in Myanmar to be destroyed and for Islam to be banned.

U Wirathu's message is that Muslims, who make up only about 4 per cent of the predominantly Buddhist population, are a threat to the nation's social fabric.

Incidents such as the Mandalay riots are a reminder of the tinderbox nature of the two groups' coexistence.

The Yangon-based analyst wrote: "This is the rise of nationalism based on religion. The departure of the military created a vacuum because, before that, the military was the embodiment of nationalism."

The events have left Muslims in Myanmar with little faith in an inclusive society, with independent Yangon- based analyst Richard Horsey pointing to "pervasive distrust and suspicion".


This article was first published on JULY 8, 2014.
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