Anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, which last year had seemed confined to the western state of Rakhine, has exploded across the country. Mobs of Buddhists, some with ties to the militant 969 Movement, have attacked Muslims in the towns of Meiktila, Naypyidaw, Bago, and most recently, in Yangon, the largest city. Many Muslims in Yangon, Bago, and other large towns are afraid to go to the mosque, enter shops catering to Muslims, or show displays of their faith outside their homes or stores. At least 100,000 Muslims have been made homeless in the past two years, and hundreds have been killed.
Many Muslim leaders had been warning of such attacks for months. Although the government had tried to tell donors, investors, journalists, and foreign diplomats that the violence in Rakhine state in 2012 was an issue localized to that area, in reality even last year there had begun to be attacks on mosques and some Muslim shops in other parts of the country. A number of donors and investors believed this reassurance because of the enormous opportunities in Myanmar, one of the last giant emerging markets to open up.
Yet anti-Muslim sentiment (and, at times, anti-Chinese, anti-Indian, and anti-anyone who is not ethnic Burman) has clearly been intensifying in Myanmar, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in Asia over the past two years. (Still, Buddhists comprise by far the majority of religious groups.) The 969 Movement has been giving anti-Muslim speeches, holding anti-Muslim rallies, and distributing DVDs full of vitriol for at least a year. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Internet, though only accessed by less than 5 percent of the population, already is overwhelmed by hateful screeds against Muslims, Indians, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities, among others. Even in Suu Kyi's pro-democracy National League for Democracy, there are worrying levels of prejudice against Muslims-- comprising about 5 percent of the population--and those not from the Burman ethnic majority group.
With Myanmar attempting to make the transition to democracy from one of the most repressive regimes on earth, this rising ethnic hatred and attacks could turn the country into at twenty-first century version of post-Cold War Yugoslavia. While Myanmar has made great strides in the past three years of reforms, without more proactive measures to halt ethnic and religious violence, the country could descend into chaos. Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Fellow for Southeast Asia