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Myanmar: Meiktila violence sends warning to foreign investors

Written by Lilianne Fan

Hero image description: Destroyed homes in Meiktila Image credit:Nyan Lynn/IRIN Image license:Creative Commons

In Myanmar's capital Yangon, on March 20-21, a business investment summit presented Myanmar as a stable, growing democracy eager to establish agriculture, infrastructure, financial and manufacturing partnerships with leading international companies.

The messages were clear: Myanmar's transition to democracy is irreversible, wide-ranging reforms are underway and the country is now ripe for investment and trade.

Investors flocked, excited about new business prospects in a country that had been economically and politically isolated for decades.

In stark contradiction, and with devastating consequences, extreme brutal violence was unleashed against Muslim residents of the township of Meiktila near Mandalay.

The aftermath of the attacks, which took place on the same day as the summit, left Meiktila looking like a war zone. Scores of buildings, including many shops and mosques, were razed to the ground. Reports from local media and human rights organisations claim hundreds may have been killed in the attacks.

Eyewitnesses have told horrific stories of people being stoned, beaten and burned to death. Among the most chilling reports to have emerged is one of 28 students, including many orphans, and four teachers at an Islamic school being beaten to death by a large Buddhist mob.

Over the weekend, fear and violence spread, with attacks reported in other parts of the country including in Nay Pyi Taw, Bago, Yamethin and Yangon. On Sunday night, three trucks of armed vigilantes mounted attempted attacks on Muslim shopkeepers and mosques in downtown Yangon, mere minutes away from the popular Aung San Market and five-star hotels close by.

The most alarming feature about the recent violence is that it bears the mark not of "communal clashes", but of carefully calculated and systematically planned attacks against a minority. Indeed, at the height of the attacks, many shocked Buddhist residents of Meiktila even risked their own lives to protect Muslims in their homes or drive them out of the city.

Local Muslim organisations have been warning for many months about mounting anti-Muslim campaigns by radical Buddhist groups, including the recently established 969 Movement, who are believed to have instigated the Meiktila attacks. Anti-Muslim incidents have increased steadily over the past few months, including the demolition of an Islamic school on the outskirts of Yangon by a mob of 300 Buddhists on Feb 17.

In a translated recorded speech posted online on Sunday, monk Wira Thu, leader of the 969 Movement, claimed the country "will fall in to the hands of the enemy [ie Muslims], unless we can mobilise the [Buddhist] public's force; once we win this battle we will move on to other Muslim targets and we must keep on moving on our [Muslim] targets".

The 969 Movement has been actively campaigning across the country, disseminating militant anti-Muslim messages through pamphlets, CDs and DVDs.

The UN secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, toured Meiktila on Sunday and called on the government to punish those responsible. It is worrying, however, that some of the monks representing the Buddhist community in meetings with UN officials are the very ones leading the campaign fuelling this violence. While some arrests of weapon-wielding perpetrators have been made, the masterminds behind the violence remain free.

For its part the government of Myanmar declared a state of emergency and deployed security forces to the affected township. In a televised statement on Monday, President Thein Sein condemned the violence and urged citizens to avoid religious extremism and violence which could jeopardise democratic reform and the process of development.

But it will take far more than statements for Myanmar to protect its citizens and ensure peace and security for all. Myanmar must swiftly arrest the instigators of the violence, and Wira Thu should be investigated for inciting hatred and violence across the country.

The Meiktila tragedy comes less than a year after the eruption of two waves of deadly violence in Rakhine state, which left 120,000 displaced, and underscores the challenges of democratic reform in a country where fault-lines, distrust, institutionalised discrimination and legacies of violence and ethnic persecution run deep.

A successful process of democratic transition cannot be conducted from above. It needs to be supported by all levels and layers of society, from government to civil society groups, to the intellectual community and regional organisations and their leaders.

Everyone must participate in the building and reimagining of the nation. All must be active in uprooting and unlearning ethno-nationalism and promoting a process of reconciliation that is genuinely broad and inclusive.

Failure to do so could slowly build up pressure and snowball into a fully fledged humanitarian crisis which would undermine prospects for development.

On the eve of assuming the Asean chair, Myanmar must demonstrate as a government that it upholds and is accountable to the principles of the Asean charter _ peace, tolerance, the protection of human rights and inclusive development. The international and regional community must better support the government of Myanmar and wider society through this difficult process of democratic reform, by encouraging an inclusive process of reconciliation, one that fosters the notion of the nation beyond perceived divides of ethnicity, religion and race.

Otherwise, the recent business summit in Yangon will remain a mere gathering of optimistic wishful thinkers, with the dreams of a transformed and developed nation shattered.