check this link right here now address Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by a Fox & Hedgehog contributor who recently spent time in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The reporter wishes to remain anonymous.
MANDALAY, Myanmar — Arriving in Mandalay recently, I was warned by almost everyone I came across not to venture outside my hotel after nine in the evening; the curfew that was imposed after racial disputes flared up a few weeks ago was still in effect. My hotel made me sign a document confirming I was aware of the curfew before handing me my room key.
The military presence was palpable. Armed trucks carrying uniformed soldiers were a sight on many street corners; normal life continued but a certain wariness—an edginess—seemed to hang over the city. At eight-fifty, watching the street from my hotel window, everything went quiet as if I’d suddenly lost my hearing. The restaurant I overlooked stopped its music, and customers emptied out in a matter of minutes—some went running.
I knew the story, and had read widely on the origin of the conflict and its present effects before arriving. Reported by much of the world’s media, the story ran like this: two Muslim men rape a Buddhist woman, Buddhists then attack Muslim quarters across the country and the government has to crack down to quell the violence and subdue the mobs.
But the story I’ve heard while here in Myanmar is somewhat different. My guide and translator, taxi drivers, hotel staff and the other Burmese I’ve encountered—all educated, to varying degrees, and who each asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisal—have described the conflict not as a spontaneous ethnic clash that has broken into violence, but as a deliberate government strategy to keep the people divided and distracted.
Arriving in Yangon a few days earlier I was struck by how improbable racial tensions seemed, because it was one of the most diverse and accommodating places I’d ever experienced—although admittedly in a fairly artificial way.
Downtown Yangon is consumed by the Buddhist Sule Pagoda, which stands at over 2000 years old. Within a hundred meter radius or so, there is a Church, a Mosque, a Chinese temple and a Synagogue. They are each fascinating places in and of themselves, but are also physical manifestations of Myanmar’s cultural and religious plurality.
Why, then, the recurring racial violence that seemingly justifies a curfew?
As various people have described it to me in almost the same form, there is no evidence for the purported rapes by Muslim men of Buddhist women. Yet that same story has reemerged multiple times, in different locations, usually through Facebook and a few local media outlets to begin with. There is widespread skepticism that the purported crimes actually occurred, simply because of their frequent recurrence in the same form, through the same mediums, and from the same dubious sources.
Nevertheless, what is certain is that a Buddhist backlash against Muslims always follows these purported crimes. Evidence for the initial crime is lacking; evidence for the response is not.
More explicitly, the view is that the government is stoking the rumours about Muslims, fully conscious of the backlash that will ensue, and is then ready to step in immediately with a curfew and other military controls of the population. It has been described to me as a method of keeping the population on their toes, in a continual state of crisis, both so the Burmese do not have time or capacity to think of other political issues, and also so the government is seen as a protector. Although very different in context and content, the strategy is not all that dissimilar to Putin’s use of rumour and subterfuge to keep Ukraine in a perpetual state of crisis, with the population unable to focus on normalizing their political affairs, and instead needing to concentrate on survival.
Further evidence for this being the Myanmar government’s strategy is its use of political prisoners in 2003, offering them their freedom, to attack supporters and followers of the Lady during a visit of hers to Mandalay. The attack broke up the tour, with the attackers—who were held up as figureheads for the popular ‘disapproval’ of Aung San Suu Kyi—disappearing.
None of this should be taken as downplaying the very real ethnic inequalities and tensions that exist in Myanmar; many of these divides were recently documented extensively by Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who called the conditions many Rohingya Muslims are forced to live in, “21st century concentration camps.” That is not something I have seen myself, because I have not travelled extensively enough. Rather, my purpose here is to highlight the consensus that is building amongst many Burmese that it is the government inciting and fuelling the ethnic violence as a means of population control. Yangon’s religious and ethnic diversity perhaps represents the view of the majority, but the government is holding its own view over the people.
Nicholas Kristof’s findings on a recent trip to Myanmar, the abuse of the Rohingya, is not mutually exclusive with what I have heard about the causes of recent violence. The government’s treatment of the Rohingya minority may even be seen as evidence of wholesale disregard for the causes and consequences of ethnic violence, and as a willingness to incite violence, and at times be complicit in its delivery.
The two Myanmars—the one which tourists see, beautiful, peaceful, historical, and the other full of tension, doubt, anger and frustration—are slowly merging as people become more willing to speak to foreigners about internal politics. These issues were, for the most part, initially raised not by me but by the people I spoke to. There is a desire here for the world to see Myanmar as it is, not as the Generals tell us it is.
These are important and worrying issues, though the signs of improvement are still there. As my guide noted when asked if he had any positive thoughts on his country: ”Of course there is good news! The current government is far better than the last!”