It came as the latest in a series of violent confrontations between the Muslim minority and Buddhists who compose the majority in Myanmar. Some Buddhist groups have been accusing the Muslim community of conspiring to dominate the whole country. While it is true that there is tension caused by religious differences, the violence in some villages was instigated by religious extremists.
Some have speculated that last week's riots could be a plot to inflame religious hatred in the country. A few hours before the riots broke out, the Young Buddhists Association warned people about a plan to provoke violence in different cities:
Alert, stay with mindfulness!
We received news that the instigators who want to create religion or race-based violence are planning to inflame [the situation] on the Internet's social networks and across the country. Therefore, for the sake of peace and stability, people of different faiths, do stay alert with tolerance and reasoning to avoid being part of the instigation of these wrongdoers!
On the last day of the riot, a crowd gathered to mourn the death of the Buddhist man, Tun Tun. Some buildings in the Muslim section of the cemetery were destroyed by the angry mob during the funeral.
Hsu Nhget, a famous writer in Mandalay, criticized the authorities for their failure to control the riots quickly and effectively:
Just look at the funeral of Tun Tun. The crowd included young men who were shouting and holding rods and sticks, like a group of rebels entering the city. I wonder why the authorities allowed this? The police were understandably handling the situation cautiously because the crowd was large but security officials were missing. As a result, some angry men (easily) destroyed the Muslim section of the cemetery.
A peace committee consisting of religious leaders and local residents was formed to prevent a repeat of the violent clashes in Mandalay. Thein Win Aung, vice chairman of the peace group, suspected that “Mandalay became a victim” of a “political trick” to stop the people from supporting the ‘436 campaign’ which aims to amend the country's military-backed constitution. He noted that the riots have stopped the people from supporting the campaign, which is a major political initiative of the opposition led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
He urged the people to be wary of this ‘trick’ to distract the public attention:
If we do not understand these political tricks, if we do not control each other, if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap, then not only Mandalay, but the entire country, will be consumed in the flames of chaos.
For its part, the government thanked the residents of Mandalay for their cooperation in restoring order in the community:
[…] Today’s stability is a result of the spirit of Mandalay residents, civil society organizations, and including the media, and religious leaders who wish to maintain the reputation of politeness, tolerance and harmony of their great city together with the timely measures taken by the government. […]
[…] Religious and civil society leaders together with the responsible youth who managed to defend and protect the people with different faiths from unnecessary misunderstandings also deserve our deep appreciation.
The government also blocked the popular social networking site Facebook during the riots as part of its efforts to prevent the spread of hate speech in the country. Myanmar Chief Police Officer Win Kaung admitted in an interview with the Irrawaddy Magazine that blocking Facebook was necessary to stop online racial attacks:
[…] Yes, we blocked it. We wanted to stop the instigation. When they are doing the instigation or spreading the unverified news, this could only provoke the underlying hatred between different groups or people; one's own word or line could lead to a bigger conflict. We need to stop this; we must try not to reach to an uncontrollable situation. We must use any possible means. Even if the situation gets uncontrollable, we must use the most appropriate means. […]
In addition, there were reports that some journalists who were covering the riots were also targeted by the mob. Threats were even made against reporters and news agencies on the Internet. Because of this, journalists were unable to report many incidents during the four-day riot. U Kyaw Myint, chairman of the Myanmar Journalist Network, said that it is time for the government to take action about this issue:
…the government needs to investigate those who are instigating to kill. Things can get worse as long as the government does not take action. The government has the means to handle these [threats] on social networks. Some users even have their real identities. The government can call them and verify if they are really spreading hate messages. Or release them if it is not true. It all depends on how the government handles the situation. There is no need to question the security of the reporters when the government even fails to take care of the security of the citizens.
Khine Nyien Thit, a former political prisoner, also shared on Facebook a note entitled “Beware… there is a trap”. The article referred to the previous race-based communal violence in 1967 and another in 1998 instigated by the government to divert political attention. Then the article pointed out the religious hatred provocation in the series of violence since 2012 in Rakhine and Meikhtila, all of the which were not started by the local residents.
The author also wrote that the verbal attacks against the opposition National League for Democracy party, which supports the constitutional reforms, were noticeably high during the times of violence. The author concluded by asserting that Myanmar's transition to democracy is possible if the people will avoid the political traps and political tricks aimed at preserving the social order.
The Mandalay riots have further confirmed the deep divisions in Myanmar along religious and ethnic lines. The continuing violence could seriously derail Myanmar's journey towards a peaceful and modern democracy if it is not stopped.