‘Hidden Hands’ Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar – I told you so

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

In a country that has been infested with the blight of unfathomable racism and bigotry for decades, rumors are enough to trigger communal riots. And if the press, priests, public servants and people’s representatives are all working in cahoots as a party to a very sinister program – which I have been calling a “national eliminationist project” – one does not have to be Einstein to understand the impact of such false rumors. And that is what happened to Mandalay in central Myanmar (formerly Burma) in July of last year when we witnessed anti-Muslim violence there. It was all part of a highly orchestrated criminal program with deep support at every level of the local and central government.
On July 3, 2014, U Soe Min, a Muslim man, was walking to morning prayers (Fajr) at a nearby mosque when a man with a machete struck him dead with a deep blow to his skull. The 51-year-old Mandalay resident, who ran a bicycle shop, was one of two innocent victims that day of communal violence sparked by reports – later proven to be false – that a Buddhist woman had been raped by two Muslim brothers.

Since May of 2012 starting with the gruesome lynching to death of ten Tablighi Muslims by a Rakhine mob, we have witnessed how the Buddhist mob and criminals have often been empowered by such false rumors to terrorize and exterminate Muslims, which sadly have been led by Buddhist monks and security forces.

The May (2012) ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims started under a similar pretext: a Rakhine woman – Ma Thida Htwe – was raped and murdered by 3 Rohingya (the so-called Bengali) Muslims. The dead body was found, rather conveniently, in a Rakhine village – not too far from a Rohingya locality. Interestingly, the lead accused – named Htet Htet – was not a ‘Bengali’ – and not even a Muslim. He was a married Buddhist Bama who in his childhood was adopted by a Rohingya Muslim family. As we have seen in many such incidents under police and NASAKA custody, Htet Htet was found dead in his prison cell. The police announced that he had killed himself.

Dr. Maung Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist, says that “the rape narrative of the Rakhine woman – the late Ma Thida Htwe – raped by ‘Bengali men’ was patently false, but spread by President Thein Sein’s men the likes of Major Zaw Htay (Hmu Zaw), Colonel Ye Htut (now information minister) as a trigger event to set the fire of genocidal hatred towards the Muslims. Ma Thida Htwe was NOT raped but was simply murdered – the doctor who examined her body told Ko Zaganar [a popular comedian], in no uncertain terms, that there was absolutely no evidence of rape on Ma Thida Htwe’s dead body. The doctor was forced to sign the medical report which claims falsely she was raped. The rape story was spread by government agents on the social media and was used as a launching pad to start waves of mass killings against the Rohingya and the Muslims across Burma or Myanmar.”

“Within a month of her death – when [Maung Thura] Zaganar attempted to meet Htet Htet’s wife,” writes Dr. Zarni in his blog, “she was found dead in a village well. How convenient!” It is believed amongst the independent analysts that NASAKA security forces killed Ma Thida Htwe and possibly Htet Htet’s wife.

For years I have been saying that if one is serious about finding the origin of race/ ethnic/ religious riots and pogroms inside military-controlled Myanmar that inquiry should start with the government itself. As subsequent inquiries have revealed I was not wrong: most of the anti-Muslim pogroms and genocidal activities inside Burma (or Myanmar) owe their origin to the government – central and local. These crimes are sometimes scripted and often times sanctioned by the government. True that we sometimes see the faces of angry Buddhist mob taking the lead in such heinous crimes, but these low-lives are often used as pawns in this chess game of ethnic cleansing of the targeted victims. And no one can deny the powerful influence of the Sangha in agitating and mobilizing Buddhists. The terrorist Buddhist monks have been employed by the regime to polarize public opinion against Muslims and aid in its sinister plan.

It is no accident that after his release from prison in 2010, Wirathu – the head abbot of the Masoyein monastery in Mandalay – with a large following has now become the face of Buddhist terrorism. His 969 (fascist) Movement provides the foot soldiers for Nazi-like blitzkrieg against unarmed Muslims. He led a rally of monks in Mandalay in September, 2012 to promote President Thein Sein’s controversial plan to expel Rohingyas to a third country. A month later more violence was directed against Muslims in the Rakhine state resulting in displacement of some 140,000 Rohingyas. His fascist movement has been behind all the subsequent pogroms directed against Muslims (and not just limited to Rohingyas) all across Myanmar. His disciples have also been behind all state-managed protest rallies against the NGOs, UN and OIC reps, including the Doctors Without Borders, worsening the humanitarian crisis affecting the Muslims of Myanmar.

With the vast support Wirathu and other racist and bigoted Buddhist monks enjoy within the broader Buddhist community, they have been able to rally hateful Buddhists to attack and kill Muslims and burn their properties with impunity. Police and other security forces, if they did not participate in such heinous crimes themselves would often time stand unperturbed, as if nothing had gone wrong, or that they have no business to stop such horrendous crimes of fellow savage Buddhists.

According to multiple corroborated eyewitnesses, the Mandalay riots of July 2014 were carried out over two straight nights by a small group of Buddhist terrorists on motorcycles carrying clubs and swords who rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods destroying homes, businesses and mosques. This took place in plain view of fully armed riot police, who followed the rioters and watched the mayhem unfold without taking action. As hinted above, Mandalay – the second largest Myanmar city – is home of the terrorist monk Wirathu. The local Panthay (Chinese) Muslims were forced to hide or keep a very low profile.

Justice Trust – an international human rights organization that partners with lawyers and activists in Myanmar to strengthen local communities fighting for justice – investigated the matter. It found ‘hidden hands’ (read: government hand) in the attack. In its released report, “Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots,” it documented the use of organized gangs of armed men to commit anti-Muslim riots under the guise of spontaneous mob violence.

The NGO held a press conference in Bangkok on March 23, 2015 to release the report.

“This report shows what most Burmese have known for a long time – that religious hatred between Buddhists and Muslims is being stoked by hidden hands and manipulated as a pretext for maintaining their grip on power,” said U Thein Than Oo, a Mandalay lawyer who serves on Justice Trust’s steering committee. “We have seen this script many times before – the deployment of plainclothes forces [Swah Ah Shin] rather than uniformed soldiers to commit national-scale political violence, and the scapegoating of minorities to divert public attention away from the country’s real needs.”

Drawing on six months of research by a team of local and international lawyers, the report analyzes the riots that shook Mandalay in July 2014 and places these riots in the context of previous waves of communal conflict carried out under past military regimes.

The Mandalay riots closely followed every element of this pattern, starting with a false charge of rape spread on Facebook. But unlike in previous riots, where large mobs developed and the violence spun out of control, local people in Mandalay refused to participate despite the best efforts of outside agitators. In fact, local monks, activists and journalists arrived and tried to contain the situation. Without the protective cover of a sympathetic crowd, the outside agitators were exposed, the stage-managed nature of their violence was made visible to the public, and the overall damage was limited.

“The Mandalay riots were designed to appear as a spontaneous outbreak of mob violence, but in fact were perpetuated by an organized gang of armed men brought in from outside Mandalay to enact a pre-determined script written and stage-managed by hidden hands for political ends,” the report says.

The report states that: “The case of Mandalay therefore provides the clearest evidence yet of a deliberate political strategy to foment anti-Muslim violence, as well as the best example of countering this strategy through a local early warning system to mobilize an immediate on-the-ground response.”

The report says they follow a similar pattern of events, including rape allegations, speaking tours by Wirathu and visits by gangs of fomenting outsiders. “Lots of people recognize that the 969 movement has a history of inciting riots … and once Wirathu posted the [rape] allegation to Facebook, the local civil groups alerted others to the coming storm,” said Roger Normand, executive director of Justice Trust.

Mandalay is far from the only orchestrated incident inside Myanmar, which has a long history of military regimes employing the “dual threat of external intervention and internal disintegration” to ensure control, according to the report. Notable examples of such diversions include General Ne Win’s anti-Chinese riots in the 1960s to distract from a countrywide rice shortage, and Buddhist-Muslim tensions after democratic mass uprising in 1988.

Anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar are not new. They have surfaced periodically in recent decades. The fascist elements within the Buddhist country have exploited their deep-seated racism and bigotry against ethnic minorities and non-Buddhists to glue the fractured Buddhist majority. Their propaganda encourages a blind racist nationalism and an unparallel bigotry, full of references to ‘protecting the race and religion’, meaning that if the national race Burmans (Bama) do not oppress other nationalities then they will themselves be oppressed and if the Buddhist majority likewise does not expel the non-Buddhists (esp. the Muslims) then they will become a minority, ‘national reconsolidation’, meaning forced assimilation, and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’, meaning that if the Army (Tadmadaw) falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would ensue. In this new Myanmarism, ethno-religio-fascist Buddhism (coined first by self-exiled researcher Dr. Shwe Lu Maung), monks have become the regime’s pit bulls that are aided from center to the local level politicians. Even Suu Kyi is a silent partner.

As noted by Human Rights Watch in its report “All You Can Do Is Pray”, immediately after the first wave of anti-Muslim genocidal activities in Arakan in June 2012, local Rakhine Buddhist monks circulated pamphlets calling for the isolation of Muslims. For instance, on June 29, monks in Sittwe (formerly Akyab) distributed an incendiary pamphlet telling all Arakanese Buddhists that they “Must not do business with Bengalis [Rohingya],” and “Must not associate with Bengalis [Rohingya].” It implored the Rakhine people to follow the demands to socially and economically isolate the Rohingya to prevent the “extinction of the Arakanese.”

On July 5, 2012 monks representing the Sangha in Rathedaung Township, 30 kilometers north of Sittwe, held a meeting and subsequently issued a 12-point statement. The preamble unabashedly presents a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya: ‘Arakan Ethnic Cleansing Program’. It called for the establishment of a “rule to control the birth rate of the Muslim Bengali community living in Arakan”; it advocated forced relocation by demanding the government “remove some Bengali villages located near Sittwe University and beside traffic communication roads throughout Arakan State”; and it expresses opposition to any reintegration plans that would “put Buddhist and Muslim people together.” Furthermore, the statement called for a “peoples’ militia in all ethnic villages along the border and [for the government] to supply sophisticated arms to the people’s militia.” The statement called for strict adherence to the 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively prevents Rohingya from obtaining Burmese citizenship. The Rathedaung statement was sent to President Thein Sein, leaders in parliament, and the presidential commission established to investigate the situation in Arakan State.

The statement also called on the Rakhine Buddhists in Rathedaung Township to avoid employing Rohingya in a range of jobs, including day laborers, carpenters, masons, and in farming. It also said that the Rohingya should not to be employed in government offices or by NGOs operating in the township, and that all NGOs providing aid to the Rohingya in the township must withdraw. On July 9, 2012 the monks’ association in Mrauk-U (once the capital of Arakan) released a similar statement: “No Arakanese [Rakhine Buddhist] should sell any goods to Bengalis, hire Bengalis as workers, provide any food to Bengalis and have any dealings with them …”

The ruling RNDP in the Rakhine state also played an instrumental role in stoking fear and encouraging isolation of and violence against the Rohingya. One of the racist provocateurs by the name of Aye Chan depicts Rohingya as ‘Influx Virus’ which needs extinction. Members of the Buddhist sangha and the RNDP have also called for changes to the demographic makeup of Arakan State and Burma, such as the expulsion of all Rohingya from the country, in interviews with the international media. The monk Sandarthiri likewise told BBC that Rohingya have no right to stay in Burma: “Around the world there are many Muslim countries. They should go there. The Muslim countries will take care of them. They should go to countries with the same religion.”

The RNDP leaders issued orders to the Rakhine people to deny food entering the Rohingya part of the villages. “If any food comes, take it, crush it, and destroy it” was a notice on the corner of the road in front of the food market with orders saying no one could allow any food to reach the Rohingya village. On that paper it said that any Buddhist taking money from the Rohingya for rice or other things would be killed.
The HRW report directly implicated “political and religious leaders in Arakan State” in the planning, organization, and incitement of attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims in October of 2012.

Buddhist monks were again in the headlines in June 2013 when it was reported that participants at a monastic conference were preparing a draft law that would put severe restrictions on inter-faith marriage and penalize Muslim men who married Buddhist women without converting.

The fact-finding reports from multiple NGOs have confirmed what we suspected for a number of years about who these ‘hidden hands’ are that are responsible for genocidal crimes against Muslims and other vulnerable minorities inside Myanmar. It is high time for the world community, esp. the UNSC, to try these fascists in the ICC for their crimes against humanity for surely the strongest antidote to genocide is justice. And nothing will sober the culprits of Myanmarism except such punitive measures

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