YANGON, MYANMAR - Calling Myanmar “a new democracy,” the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar told VOA the latest manifestation of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in the Southeast Asian nation is a problem rooted in “the rule of law.”
The early morning confrontation Wednesday began late Tuesday night when a group of nationalists complained to police that several Rohingya were illegally hiding in a house in a Yangon neighborhood, according to local press accounts.
Police who investigated refused to arrest the men, saying they were local, non-Rohingya Muslims allowed to be there.
Authorities in Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, consider most Rohingya to be “resident foreigners,” not citizens, according to Human Rights Watch. The majority of them live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and cannot travel without special permission.
An Associated Press reporter saw approximately 30 Buddhists, including monks, in the neighborhood. Some were armed with stones, as were many of the area’s Muslim residents. Police fired two warning shots to disperse the crowds, and at least one Muslim man was hospitalized with injuries.
Rule of law
“To me, this is really a matter of the rule of law,” the U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, told VOA’s Burmese Service.
Emphasizing that the only information he had about the incident came from press accounts, Marciel said, “What’s important in this case, or any other case like this, is that the law be applied fairly.” He added that it is “problematic to have citizens accompanying law enforcement to look into a possible crime. … It raises a lot of concerns, a lot of problems.”
Calling Myanmar “a new democracy,” Marciel said that the hope would be that “as Myanmar builds the rule of law,” citizens would raise any concerns they have about illegal activities with law enforcement, and that law enforcement “would take over from there so you avoid situations of crowds getting involved to enforce what they see as the law.”
But, he added “it takes time for societies to learn how they want their democracy to operate and what rule of law means.”
The Wednesday night incident was the second one in less than a month in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. On April 28, ultranationalist monks and their supporters forced two Muslim schools to close. Police stood by as the protesters chained the doors of the schools, according to Human Rights Watch. As of May 8, the schools remained closed.
A militant organization of Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha has spearheaded protests against Muslims. Its leaders have been accused of stirring up mob violence leading to the deaths of Muslims and destruction of their property around the country. Most of the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar since 2012 has occurred in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are accused of entering the country illegally from Bangladesh.
“It’s a tremendous concern that this is happening in Yangon,” Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar told VOA’s Burmese Service.
Although Myanmar prohibits religious discrimination “it’s very sensitive when you’re dealing with monks in this very highly Buddhist country, a very proudly Buddhist country,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who served in Myanmar from July 2012, and departed March 2016, said that it is difficult to say why the tension is erupting in Yangon.
Mitchell said that while the situation in Rakhine State has attracted the most attention, the incidents in Yangon reflect “a broader issue of anti-Muslim sentiment” in Myanmar, something that cannot be blamed on State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is the de facto government leader.
“I think she and the NLD government are sincere and are doing everything they possibly can to try to root it out and prevent it,” Mitchell said. “But it’s very difficult to block out and change minds and mindsets.”
This report originated in the VOA Burmese Service.