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It has become a depressingly familiar scene, repeated across disparate parts of Burma over the past year and a half: communities collapsing from within, neighbours attacking neighbours, a clash of existential narratives predicated on mutually exclusive notions of belonging and national identity.
Last week, Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, finally succumbed. At around midnight on 2 July, Tun Tun, 36, was hacked to death by unknown assailants, making him the first casualty of the latest round of unrest. A Buddhist and a self-employed metalworker from Patheingyi Township, he was also a volunteer driver for a social assistance group run by a monk, U Ottama, out of the Shwe Kyay Si monastery located at the foot of Yankin Hill in suburban Mandalay. While he was reported to have been involved in the attacks on Muslim targets in the city centre, his friend Htwe Lu, 24, who survived the attack, denies this.
“Tun Tun and I went to pick up our friend at around midnight. There was a group on 84th street that pointed flashlights at us and told us to stop our motorbikes. They asked us where we were going,” Htwe Lu said.
Their assailants – who Htwe Lu identified as Muslims – demanded their money and mobile phones; Htwe Lu managed to run away, and claims to have returned a few minutes later to find Tun Tun lying bloodied and unresponsive on the street.
While the circumstances surrounding Tun Tun’s death might be explained away as a robbery gone wrong, Htwe Lu believes greed played a minimal role in the attack.
“In my view, by killing a Buddhist and leaving his body in the road, it is a challenge for other Buddhist people.” he said.
That this attack came a day after Mandalay’s Muslim quarter was rocked with interreligious violence between Muslims and Buddhists is no coincidence. Catalysed by online rumours that a Muslim tea-shop owner raped a Buddhist employee, a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Sun teashop in Mandalay’s Muslim quarter on 1 July, demanding revenge on behalf of the alleged rape victim – a figure whose existence remains disputed. The crowd soon dispersed around the neighbourhood, destroying cars and throwing rocks at Muslim-owned businesses.“In my view, by killing a Buddhist and leaving his body in the road, it is a challenge for other Buddhist people.” said Htwe Lu, a friend of Tun Tun.
This marks the latest in a string of attacks on Muslim targets in central Burma over the past eighteen months. Although the violence has subsided for now, the underlying tensions that led to the riots have not diminished, and may yet catalyse another round of violence in the future. With nation-wide elections scheduled to occur next year, Burma’s government is wary of alienating what has become an increasingly militant Buddhist nationalist lobby, and elements within the government may be capitalising on anti-Muslim sentiment in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of ongoing reforms and deflect attention away from other fundamental issues.
“I think they want to slow down those tensions, and divert the tensions against the Muslim people,” a Muslim interfaith activist, who did not want to be named for his safety, told DVB.
As far as U Ottama is concerned, however, Buddhist anger is a legitimate response to Muslim aggression. When the monk heard about the violence on Tuesday, he claims he went to the scene in an attempt to defuse tensions along with his mentor, the well-known Galon Nyi Sayadaw.
He pins the blame for Mandalay’s troubles squarely on Muslim shoulders.
“It is inappropriate to break Muslim property, but on the other hand, Buddhists have been abused by the Muslim people. They feel it is unfair, and want to fight back,” U Ottama said. “If they can’t fight back, they will let out their anger by breaking property, because they can’t beat Muslim people.”
Tun Tun’s funeral was held on Friday, and his body was transported to the cemetery in a hearse owned by U Ottama’s organisation. Banners picturing his dead body, lying in a pool of blood, and accompanied by an announcement that he had been “killed by Muslims” were hung on both sides of the van.
The funeral procession made a pointed detour away from the cremation ground to Mandalay’s city centre. As it circled the moat around the palace, a crowd of men on motorcycles – brandishing sticks and swords – chanted nationalist and anti-Muslim slogans.
When the procession reached the cemetery, individuals within the crowd migrated to an adjacent Muslim section where they defaced Muslim graves and burned down the home of the Muslim caretaker.
U Ottama does not believe that the inflammatory sign placed on the hearse constitutes rabble rousing, nor does he believe that it could contribute to further violence.
“We don’t intend it [to cause violence]. But everybody should know, to protect themselves. We don’t want things like this to happen in the future,” he said.
Roughly five hours after Tun Tun’s killing, Soe Min, a second-hand bicycle dealer, was bludgeoned to death just before sunrise by unknown assailants as he cycled to morning prayers at a local mosque.
Although Soe Min was well-known for his support of grassroots interfaith initiatives, his friends were dismissive of the notion that he had been singled out by enemies seeking revenge.
“Most of these riots that happen around Burma have many similarities. First, a Muslim guy is accused of rape, and second, a very angry mob comes and the police aren’t taking enough action against them. Then, they search Muslims’ homes, properties, et cetera,” a friend of Soe Min’s, who did not want to be named out of fear for his safety, told DVB.
“You may remember the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and how [the government] cracked down,” he said. “That was a movement against the government, so it was cracked down within an hour, within a day.”
“They have all the information. If they want to prevent these incidents they can. Intentionally, they let it happen.”
In late 2007, tens of thousands of monks took to the streets, initially to protest a massive spike in fuel prices. The protests soon transformed into a broader call for democratic freedoms. In the crackdown that ensued, images of soldiers beating up monks caused the military junta’s already-shaky public standing to plummet, a crisis of legitimacy that in no small part contributed to the timing of the constitutional referendum less than a year later and the process of ongoing reforms that has ensued.
Both Buddhists and Muslims interviewed for this article expressed frustration at the unresponsiveness of the police, who have been criticised for standing idly by while mobs run amok in bouts of communal strife across the country.
U Ottama admits that the police do not want to be perceived as cracking down on Buddhists, although he claims their enforcement of the law is biased towards Muslims – a belief Mandalay’s Muslims vehemently deny.
“If the police were to respond to the rioters by arresting them, it would only make people angrier. That’s why the police don’t crack down, and why this problem keeps happening,” he said. “First, they have to arrest the Muslim people who rape and beat people. After, then, they can go after the criminals who break property; that would be fair. Otherwise, it’s not fair.”
In the wake of the violence in Mandalay last week, a semblance of normalcy has returned to Burma’s second-largest city, despite a curfew imposed on seven townships that has left the streets eerily quiet from nine in the evening to five o’clock the following morning.“If [the government] wants to prevent these incidents they can. Intentionally, they let it happen,” said a friend of Soe Min.
The rioters’ motivations and identities remain opaque and disputed. A large number came to the city centre from outlying areas like Patheingyi, with some possibly originating further afield. A Mandalay-based social activist told DVB that he sees the government’s hand in stimulating the latest bout of violence, an allegation that has historical precedence in Burma, but which has proven difficult to verify.
He believes that some of the rioters may have also been involved in anti-Muslim attacks in Lashio last May, a theory implying the existence of a shadowy, state-backed anti-Muslim militia.
“We didn’t see local Mandalay people joining [the attacks]. Most of the Buddhist community is against this violence,” he said “One thing is sure: they are very well-organised. If you have 200 or 300 people just going around, we can’t find them in the town, they just disappear.”
“The Ministry of Home Affairs didn’t order the police to shoot, or control the situation well,” he said. “Even if other ministries [want] them to act, they don’t dare to intervene.”