Myanmar's reform program is being challenged by continuing anti-Muslim rioting, which has left 43 dead and hundreds injured in the past two weeks. The rioting has now extended beyond Rakhine State across central Myanmar (formerly Burma), with "well-organised" anti-Muslim riots in 11 Burmese cities and towns, including its second city of Mandalay, where a state of emergency has been declared, and to Pegu, just north of Rangoon.
Security forces have been accused of being unable or unwilling to control the rioting. Although Myanmar has long had a history of religious intolerance, there are also concerns the riots are being organised by factions opposed to the country's recent reforms. The anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhist nationalist extremists started in Rakhine State last December, where it left more than 180 dead. There have been reports of extremist Buddhists from Sri Lanka working with counterparts in Myanmar to promote a radical, religious-based, nationalist agenda. Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist communities have long had close ties, with Sri Lanka's extremist Buddhists at the forefront of Sri Lanka's increasingly authoritarian turn.
The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, says the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting. "I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes," he said. "This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions."
A government spokesman has denied state involvement in the riots. President Thein Sein, who has instituted many of Myanmar's recent reforms, has warned he would use force if necessary to protect lives and property from the violence. He has said "political opportunists and religious extremists" have been involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence.
While there is some possibility that religious extremists are taking advantage of Myanmar's increasing openness to press for a form of ethnic cleansing, there continues to be a military faction in the country's government opposed to its reform program. The anti-reform group has consistently been on the back foot over the past year, being replaced in senior government posts by pro-reform officers. However, the rise of religious violence has bolstered an anti-reform nationalist agenda.
Thein Sein has responded to the riots by convening a high-powered "committee" to identify and "take severe action" against the organisers of the riots. The "committee" is headed by Myanmar's Minister for Home Affairs, Lt. General Ko Ko, Aung Min (Thein Sein's "fix-it" minister without portfolio) and chief of police Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun.
The four-day visit to Australia by Burmese President Thein Sein, the first by a Burmese leader since the country descended into self-imposed isolation in 1974, marks the increasing international acceptability of the once outcast state. Thein Sein's arrival in Australia on Sunday reciprocates a visit by Foreign Minister Bob Carr to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last year.
Thein Sein's visit to Australia reflects the quickening pace of deepening relations between Australia and Myanmar and Australia's support for Myanmar's reform process, including increased aid to more than $100 million over the next three years. Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama last November, marking the beginning of a rapid thaw in Myanmar's international relations and the ending of its international status as a pariah state.
Protesters in Australia have called on the Australian government to press the Burmese leader over continuing human rights concerns in Myanmar. These include continuing abuses by the military and police and two ethnic-based wars, in the northern Kachin State and Shan State. There has also been widespread international concern over attacks against ethnic Muslim Rohingyas in the western Rakhine State starting late last year, in which up to 2000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 80,000 displaced.
Thein Sein, a former general, was hand-picked for the presidency by hard-line predecessor General Than Shwe. Than Shwe is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including directing the violent crackdown against protesters, led by Buddhist monks, in 2007. It has become increasingly apparent Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein to slowly transition the country towards a form of democracy. The exchange for this political transition was that senior military leaders would be protected from prosecution and the often substantial business interests of their families would remain unaffected.
Since assuming the leadership in 2011, Thein Sein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the pro-democratic National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to compete in byelections, ahead of an open political competition in 2015.
The NLD recently held internal elections for candidates for the 2015 elections. Assuming the elections proceed without interference, it is widely expected the NLD will win a substantial majority. Thein Sein said last year he would be willing to hand over political power if the NLD achieved a parliamentary majority and Suu Kyi were elected president.
The Burmese leader's visit to Australia coincides with the launch of the Australia Myanmar Institute in Melbourne today. The AMI, a project between Deakin and Melbourne universities, is intended to develop a greater flow of information between Australia and Myanmar and to promote Myanmar's reform process.
Participants at the inaugural "Progress, Opportunities and Concerns in Myanmar's Transition" conference include two former Australian ambassadors to Myanmar, medical, legal and educational specialists, academics and businesses.
For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.
But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.
Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.
There is a quickly developing sense that Burma, long an outcast in the international community, has begun a serious process of reform. It is as though the Burmese opposition, and the world behind it, are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage comes to love the hostage taker following a small sign of kindness.
Burma’s human rights record over the past five decades has consistently been among the worst in the world. It is also one of the world’s biggest international drug suppliers.
To counter the damaging opprobrium this brings, the Burmese military-derived government has now released hundreds of political prisoners, signed a ceasefire with the country’s largest ethnic rebel group and has allowed the opposition National League for Democracy to re-form. The NLD has announced that it will challenge 23 of 48 vacant seats in by-elections to be held on 1 April.