The video shows smoke rising from a burning village. Men, women and children are shown escaping from the ordeal. The military are present but do nothing as the people are assaulted by a variety of projectiles. An on-looking woman eggs on the violence shouting, “Kill them, Kill them!”
These are the images that are coming out of Myanmar as of the time of this writing. What was initially dismissed as a local and isolated conflict has slowly revealed itself as increasingly sectarian and religious in nature. Not that sectarian violence is anything new in the country formerly known as Burma. It was one of the underlying themes of George Orwell’s Burmese Days back in 1934.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has responded to international condemnation by publically promising that the ringleaders that used ‘religion as a pretext to incite violence’ will be brought to justice. But how serious can the world take him at his word when ministers in his own governments are perpetuating wild conspiracy theories that ignore the sectarian reality on the ground. These voices range from the deputy information minister who blames the involvement of secret elements meaning to destroy the state to whispered rumors that the violence was the work of hard-line militarists who want to revert to the old system. All conveniently ignore the history of sectarian divisions that are present in the country (often times perpetuated and maintained by the central government) and the growing Islamophobia within the region.
Perhaps more worryingly for Myanmar is the silence that has come out of the opposition National League for Democracy. The party and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi have long been held as the moral compass for the country. Those who would look to her for reassurance on the matter at hand would be disappointed to find out that both have stayed largely quiet on the matter. In regards to the current crisis, the one time Nobel Peace Prize Laureate has only said a few measured words in public about the need to uphold the rule of law and that the “threat in Meikhtila” as being a threat for the whole country. Not to mention that since her release she has paid little attention at the continued deportation, raping and killing of Muslims in the Arakan state. For someone with her clout and sway, Aung San Suu Kyi’s tardiness in identifying and criticizing sectarian violence is not only regrettable but also irresponsible and reprehensible.
The bottom line is that unless someone of authority is willing to step in and be decisive and authoritative on the matter the situation will get much worse before it gets better. Already Rohingya and other Muslim migrants have fled to nearby Thailand and India. There they are met with skepticism and scorn and in many cases violence and prejudice. While the government has pleaded for patience while it deals with the situation others have blamed the sudden access to freedom of speech and press as catalysts to the chaos.
For those who have been reporting on the situation for some time the hope that leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi might step in and offer a firmer hand is slim to non-existant. Increasingly such notable figures from the years of the resistance retire into playing politics rather than offering the same leadership that once steadied a rocking nation through the storm of military rule. One has to wonder what kind of democracy NLD had in mind in all its years on the sideline. Would it be a Myanmar for all or just one for the Burmese. Unless an answer presents itself soon Orwell’s book might still be relevant in another 50 years.
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Cod Satrusayang is a writer and a blogger based in Bangkok, Thailand. His works have appeared in the Asian Sentinel, CNN, The Huffington Post and a myriad of other publications. His new book The Fall is due out in the summer of 2014.