ON MAY 28th a Buddhist woman in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine was raped and killed by three young Muslims as she returned home. Six days later, in apparent retaliation, a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims was stopped in the town of Taungkok by a mob of 300 Buddhist vigilantes. The passengers were herded off the vehicle and ten of them were clubbed to death.
The tit-for-tat violence has since led to ethnic violence throughout Rakhine state. The killing, looting and house-burning have even engulfed the state capital of Sittwe. At least 21 people have been killed, many more injured and thousands of homes destroyed.
The frenzied attacks by both Buddhists and Muslims show just how combustible Myanmar’s regions remain, even after the great strides made in the country’s reform programme led by the president, Thein Sein. The violence also forms a dispiriting backdrop to the much-heralded visit to Europe by the opposition leader and freshly elected MP, Aung San Suu Kyi, who left Myanmar for Geneva on June 13th.
Relations between the majority Buddhist population in Rakhine state and the minority Muslims (known as Rohingyas) have been on edge for decades. The Rohingyas originally came from Bengal to what was then Burma when both were parts of Britain’s vast Indian empire. Even then they were hardly made to feel welcome, and discrimination against them continues to this day. Myanmar denies them citizenship, classifying them as illegal immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have crossed into Bangladesh, fleeing racial and religious persecution not just at the hands of the Burmese authorities but by their supposed Burmese countrymen as well. Indeed, these latest killings did not so much prompt soulsearching among Burmans as a tirade of bigotry against the country’s Rohingya minority.
There were also fears that the violence could spill over into other areas, and even that it might retard progress on reform in the rest of the country. Mr Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Rakhine state on June 10th, thus putting the army back in control there. The transfer of power in 2010 from the army to civilian authorities has been one of the main advances of Myanmar’s political transition, so any step back, even if only in a distant corner, has worried reformers.
Military hardliners, many of whom oppose Mr Thein Sein’s reforms, argue that the army must continue to have a paramount role, as it is the only institution capable of holding Myanmar’s shaky ethnic patchwork together. A state of emergency in Rakhine helps their cause. Even the reforming president warned that such ethnic and communal violence could damage democratisation and development in the whole country.
Such concerns will also make Miss Suu Kyi’s visit to Europe more difficult. Her trip to Thailand at the start of June marked the first time since 1988 that she had left Myanmar. She had worried before that, once abroad, she would not be allowed back in. The visit went well enough, but it was a low-key affair compared with the razzmatazz lined up for her in Europe.
Miss Suu Kyi will travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize that she was awarded in 1991. She will then address the combined Houses of Parliament in Britain before attending a concert in Ireland hosted by Bono, a rock star.
She will be feted wherever she goes, and that alone is likely to stir jealousy and tension within Mr Thein Sein’s government in Naypyidaw. But there is a more profound problem: the message that she is conveying to foreign audiences is fundamentally different from that of Myanmar’s government. In Thailand she warned against “reckless optimism” about the changes in Myanmar, and advised investors to maintain a “healthy scepticism”.
Those are wise words perhaps, but at odds with the message of many in the government. They are frantically trying to attract as many foreign investors to the country as quickly as possible, to compensate sceptical (and perhaps troublesome) hardliners with quick riches in exchange for a loss of political power. Ethnic violence in western Myanmar and the shadow of more to come will only make those tensions worse.