Is ‘nationalism’ solely to blame for Burma’s latest anti-Muslim violence?
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Is ‘nationalism’ solely to blame for Burma’s latest anti-Muslim violence?

The town of Lashio in Burma’s northeastern Shan state has become the latest victim of anti-Muslim violence. At the time of writing, one person was reported dead and four injured after Buddhist mobs rampaged through the town, torching a Muslim orphanage and mosque. The violence broke out in the wake of the alleged burning of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man.

Observers have been quick to raise the spectre of the spread of Burmese nationalism, which has caused so much damage elsewhere in the country. The mobs cavorting around Lashio branding mallets are seen as the ideological kin of those in Meiktila, Bago and Oakkan who have razed Muslim neighbourhoods and killed dozens over the past few months.

Yet something about that narrative doesn’t sit too well in Shan state. Anti-Muslim sentiment certainly exists there, but Shan nationalism grew in response to Burman designs on Shan culture and society. Their animosity towards the dominant ethnic group in Burma is well known. This is why a report in the New York Times that described groups of men gathering in Lashio “’shouting, cheering and singing Burmese nationalist songs’ as they destroyed shops” becomes quite perplexing.

(READ MORE: Buddhist mobs spread fear among Burma’s Muslims)

Lashio hasn’t seen any such violence before, although in Namkham a few months ago, anti-Muslim 969 stickers began appearing on shops, despite the town having a very small Muslim population. I wrote at the time: “Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.”

The involvement of higher powers certainly seems applicable to Lashio. Mobs there beat up journalists attempting to report on the situation, while reports have circulated that communications to Lashio were cut when the violence first started on Tuesday. The attacks on journalists suggest a level of complicity that needs to be obscured from the public. The New York Times also quoted an eyewitness who said:

“The first police units arrived two hours after groups of men set fire to a mosque and began destroying shops. The police stayed for only a few minutes, he said, and when a larger contingent of police and military units returned later in the night, they closed off the streets but did not confront the rioters.”

A seasoned observer I spoke to had this to say about the Lashio violence, and I have to agree with him.

“If you connect the dots, you can see that the “Arakan model” is being implemented again – stirring up violence and destruction to such an extent that local people, despite their hatred of Burmese military rulers, end up asking for more “protection” (and centralised control) to stop this from happening again.”

Arakan state is proof of what this venomous hatred towards a minority group does for the military-led government – the Arakanese, a fiercely nationalist ethnic group who have long resisted colonizing by the Burman, have created a situation whereby the Burmese army, surely the most potent colonizing tool in Naypyidaw’s armoury, have become de facto protectors of the western state against the manufactured ‘Muslim peril’. The state now has a heavier troop presence than ever before, and this supposed threat has been amplified so much that even the likes of democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi, who has dedicated his life towards diluting the power of the military, said last year that “his organization and its followers are willing to take up arms alongside the military in order to fight back against ‘foreign invaders’” – meaning the Rohingya.

This plays so perfectly into the hands of those who want to keep the army an all-powerful force in Burma. Even its strongest adversaries – the Shan, the Arakanese, the stoic democracy activists – are now on its side.

Another concerning development has occurred since the Lashio unrest. A friend in Yangon said this morning that her cleaner, a Christian but with dark skin, had been told to get off the bus today on account of her ‘Indian’ appearance. This may be related to early reports that the man who set the Buddhist woman alight in Lashio was Indian (and, as was pointed out on Twitter today, there’s no small irony in a Buddhist person berating someone for looking Indian).

Note also the eyewitness in Lashio who told Reuters that, “I got a light for my cigarette from one [Buddhist attacker] and he told me to kill all Bengalis while waving this 18-inch blade around.” There are no ‘Bengalis” (i.e., Rohingya) in Lashio – it seems the target has become confused. Both are prime examples of how fast this racist ripple effect can take hold, and suggests the ‘enemy’ is becoming increasingly ill-defined, which holds entirely new dangers of its own.