Over the past twelve months, brutal attacks on Burma’s Muslim community have taken place across the country, spreading from Arakan state in the west to, most recently, Shan state in the east.
Serious atrocities have occurred, including acts that allegedly amount to crimes against humanity. Many of the worst offences are believed to have perpetrated with the aid of state agencies; in other incidents, the police stood by and did nothing to prevent loss of life.
Such extremely grave abuses have elicited widespread concern, but in an alarming number of cases, perhaps even the majority, impunity for the perpetrators has followed. By contrast, Muslims accused of crimes related to the same incidents have felt the full force of the law quickly, excessively and unmistakably.
These patterns are disturbingly instructive and hint at institutional prejudices that have survived Burma’s recent reforms; insufficient responses to Muslim persecution from the international community, on the other hand, are far harder to explain.
Such moral laxity has helped to condemn the Burmese Islamic community to ongoing suffering and vulnerability in the face of increasingly militant Buddhist-chauvinist hostility. In lieu of adequate foreign or internal pressure, it falls to journalists, rights campaigners and other interested groups both within and outside of Burma to step up and confront this plague of violence and bigotry. The best way that this can be done, in my view, is to expose those most responsible for its recrudescence.
I say this with a conviction that there is some level of organisation behind the recent attacks on the Muslim community, and that the simplistic narrative that such acts are merely the product of relaxed state authoritarianism is pernicious and unconvincing. In fact, I felt prompted to write this op-ed precisely because of information that I have received from reliable sources on the issue.
Their claims were made prior to an important piece featured in the Straits Times recently by Nirmal Ghosh. Many will have read Mr Ghosh’s article “Old Monsters Stirring Up Trouble”, in which he cites a military source within Naypyidaw who points the finger at a notorious paramilitary group linked to the former regime and a controversial ex-minister- namely, the Swan Arshin and Aung Thaung respectively.
“There are appear to be common features to most of the major anti-Muslim incidents”Prior to reading Ghosh’s article, I was told by a separate figure in Naypyidaw that Aung Thaung was central to the violence, and yet another reliable source within the Sangha asserted that the infamousanti-Muslim 969 movement had deep links to the Swan Arshin.
Another, very solid source with access to privileged government information shared with me his awareness that Wirathu, the demagogic monk famously associated with the 969 group, had been present in Lashio the day before the attacks in the town began. It is a claim that seems plausible given that it was reported he was spotted in Shan state in late May.
It is worth noting that Wirathu was also recognised to have been preaching in Meikhtila not long before the atrocities that took place there occurred, and was present in the city on the day of the attacks. Links between Wirathu and Aung Thaung in themselves have been subjected to a great deal of speculation, in particular the Abbot’s meeting with the former minister immediately prior to the attacks in Arakan state in October.
According to my own interviews with eyewitnesses to the attacks throughout the country, conducted both while I have been in Burma and from abroad, there are appear to be common features to most of the major anti-Muslim incidents.
Witnesses in Sittwe with whom I met were very clear that many of the ‘attackers were strangers’; in Meikhtila, this was again a recurrent message from sources I contacted; finally in Lashio the presence of outsiders was confirmed by multiple sources.
Another witness to a separate act of violence, this time in Rangoon, told me that he saw groups of young men attack a mosque near Annawratha Road from their vehicles with projectiles in the middle of the night. In his words it was ‘definitely an organised attack’, in keeping with many other reported mosque assaults. The presence of men on motorbikes behaving similarly was confirmed by another source who saw events take place in Oakkan.
I mention the above allegations without endorsing them, but acknowledging that they certainly merit reporting- and further investigation. Aung Thaung for his part has unsurprisingly denied the claimsreported by the Straits Times.
Regardless, urgent questions need to be asked: who are these people that my sources- and many others- have seen in vehicles, throwing projectiles and coming from out of town? Why was it consistently reported that the outsiders in Lashio were heard singing Burmese nationalist songs, and being of Burmese not Shan appearance? What was Wirathu doing so close to the action, before and during several incidents?
Why are the perpetrators, and in the indeed the whole 969 operation not adequately subjected to the censure of the law; and why have police and firefighters been to reluctant to intervene as Muslims are being assaulted and their homes burnt, as has been so often reported?
It is up to responsible journalists to aggressively dig out the answers to these questions and expose the agendas at work behind the terror campaign being conducted against Muslims in Burma. In my opinion, not doing so would be yet another gutless betrayal of the victims of these egregious crimes by those with the power to do something to help.
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom and New Zealand
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.