In a scene resembling the apocalypse, smoke and flames rise above the shattered ruins of houses and a mosque. Refugees, children among them, scatter in panic, carrying whatever they were able to retrieve from their homes. Dead bodies lie abandoned in the streets. These are not scenes from the Syrian civil war, but from Burma—a country the West has been applauding as it takes baby steps toward democracy.
It was all going so well. One year and a half ago, after 50 years of brutal military dictatorship, this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation of 60 million people between India and China suddenly began to change. After the country’s new president had a one-on-one meeting with pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, there were a flurry of reforms: censorship was relaxed, political prisoners freed, trade unions legalized. Suu Kyi herself fought a by-election last April; she and dozens of her party colleagues were elected in remarkably fair elections.
But now all that progress risks being undone. The outbreak of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the town of Meiktila, in the center of the country, has already taken at least 20 lives and perhaps many more. And with the police unable to restore order despite an emergency rule decree, the army could be drafted in. A country tasting freedom for the first time in half a century could again see the feared military back in charge of the streets.
The violence is particularly disturbing because Meiktila has no special reputation for problems of this sort. Last year there were several outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims from the Rohingya community in the far west of the country, on the border with Bangladesh. In a spate of killing and ethnic cleansing, many Muslims were killed and thousands lost their homes. Although the violence was condemned around the world, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to back the Rohingyas. Dependent on the votes of millions of Burmese Buddhists in the general elections scheduled for 2015, she appeared reluctant to support the claims of a community that millions of Buddhists regard as illegal immigrants—even though they have lived in Burma for centuries.
Terrible though last year’s violence was, it was also horribly normal: the Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims have been feuding for decades now. And as the Rohingya have been long been denied citizenship by the central government, chauvinistic Buddhists in Arakan felt they had the law on their side.
But now these ugly communal hatreds that have been festering for the past year have erupted anew, more than a hundred miles to the east: an apparently trivial dispute in a gold shop led to people being killed with knives and sticks in a large-scale brawl in the town’s main street, then to mosques and homes being burned to the ground, and to thousands of Muslims being driven from their homes, with 1,500 of them seeking refuge in Meiktila’s soccer stadium.
Back in 2007, Burma’s Buddhist monks stopped the world in its tracks as they marched in the tens of thousands through the streets of Burma’s towns and cities, demanding justice and democracy in a movement dubbed the Saffron Revolution. How can these peace-loving religious people have turned to hatred and violence?
In recent months a grassroots campaign has been gathering strength across Burma, claiming that Muslims are plotting to take over the world and urging Burmese Buddhists to shun them. One Burma commentator, Maung Zarni of the London School of Economics, himself of a Buddhist background, has described the movement as “neo-Nazi.” Many people said he was exaggerating, and he has been barred from returning to Burma. But if it emerges that the violence in Meiktila was a result of this campaign, he may be proved right.
Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to make any public comment about the clashes.