Two years after a repressive junta ceded power, Myanmar is grappling with a surge in religious extremism that experts trace to anti-Muslim “provocateurs” including radical Buddhist monks.
At least 43 people have been killed while mosques and Muslim homes have been destroyed over the past fortnight in central Myanmar, in a wave of violence that witnesses say seems to have been well organised.
“It is clear that there are some agents provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country – including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, a Myanmar expert with the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighbourhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements,” he added.
Monks – once at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement and viewed with reverence in this devout Buddhist-majority nation – have been linked to the unrest.
Some members of the clergy have been involved in the violence, while others are spearheading a move to shun shops owned by Muslims and only visit stores run by Buddhists, identified by stickers showing the number “969”, which has become a symbol of their campaign.
“When the profit goes to the enemy’s hand, our nationality, language and religion are all harmed,” said Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay whose anti-Muslim remarks have come under recent scrutiny.
“They will take girls with this money. They will force them to convert religion. All children born to them will be a danger to the country. They will destroy the language as well as the religion,” he said in a speech put online.
More moderate voices among civil society activists and religious leaders are calling for the country to defuse violence that has cast a shadow over the Buddhist-majority nation’s political reforms.
“We need to fight this incitement by a group of bad people,” said Thet Swe Win, a human rights activist who co-organised a recent “Pray for Myanmar” peace event in Yangon.
“We must prevent racial and religious disputes,” he added.
The apparent spark for the recent violence was an argument in a gold shop in the town of Meiktila on March 20 that escalated into a full-scale riot.
Since then armed gangs have roamed from town to town in central Myanmar razing mosques and Muslim homes.
It follows Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year that left at least 180 people dead, mostly minority Muslim Rohingya who are viewed by many Burmese as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
A wave of hate has swept across social media websites targeting the Rohingya, who have long been denied citizenship by Myanmar’s government, which – like many Burmese – refers to them as “Bengalis”.
Recently, however, the violence has also targeted Muslims with Myanmar citizenship, some of whose families came to the country more than a century ago from India, Bangladesh or China.
Speaking to news agency AFP, monk Wirathu denied that he was against all Muslims, and said the “969” movement was unrelated to the recent unrest.
“We just targeted Bengalis who are terrorising ethnic Rakhine (Buddhists),” the 45-year-old said.
“We are just preaching to prevent Bengalis entering the country and to stop them insulting our nationalities, language and religion,” he added.
In an effort to stem the violence, the government has declared a state of emergency and deployed troops in the worst-hit areas.
The United Nations’ human rights envoy to the country, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has said the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting – comments rejected by Myanmar.
On Thursday, President Thein Sein appeared on national television to address the nation, warning unidentified “political opportunists and religious extremists” that their actions “will not be tolerated.”
It was a “courageous” speech, according to independent analyst Mael Raynaud.
“A Myanmar president addressing the nation directly and talking about religious extremism clearly aimed at Buddhist monks – that’s never been seen before,” he said.
In contrast, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who many believe has her sights set firmly on the next election in 2015, has not yet spoken publicly about the recent clashes.
“Now is the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion, rather than just following it,” Della-Giacomo said.
Suu Kyi “must be prepared to vocally and unambiguously take the side of peace and tolerance”, he added.