Page 1 of 2 Echoes of Indonesia in Myanmar transition
By Tom Farrell
RAKHINE STATE - The brutal images and survivor accounts show a dreadful synchronicity. Once again families huddle around what possessions they salvaged from their homes before they were torched. Children scamper between rows of hangdog wood and bamboo huts. Adults appear frightened and listless.
It is as if the hatred and violence that flourished on the equator over a decade ago in Indonesia has now migrated across the Southeast Asian landmass to Myanmar. In parallel, a nation has exchanged decades of military authoritarian rule for a period of wobbly political reform. And again vicious communal violence has threatened to derail the democratization process.
Mounting evidence hints at a rear guard action by figures in the
previous ruling military junta seeking to stoke enough instability to make democracy seem incompatible with stable authoritarian governance. As Myanmar follows the example of Indonesia and relinquishes a centralized authoritarian political system, will its hopeful road to multi-party democracy prove as deadly and tumultuous?
To be sure, Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) State is not a carbon copy of the Indonesian provinces of Maluku (Moluccas), Central Sulawesi and Kalimantan 10 to 15 years ago. The numbers killed and displaced in Myanmar's recent anti-Muslim pogroms have not yet approached the levels of violence seen in Indonesia following the end of General Suharto's New Order regime in May 1998.
The fall of Suharto after 32 years of iron-fisted military rule added impetus to long-standing ethnic and religious tensions at opposite ends of the sprawling archipelago. In the resource-rich territories of West Papua and Aceh, separatist movements felt emboldened by the power vacuum in Jakarta and East Timor's declaration of independence following a United Nations-sponsored ballot for self-determination.
As in present day Myanmar, long-term grudges combined with the entrenched corruption and opportunism of powerful individuals in the security forces proved to be a particularly combustible mix in the immediate post-Suharto era. With the loosening of Suharto's authoritarian grip, Muslim and Christian thugs rose up against their perceived rivals across the Moluccan Islands.
Villages and neighborhoods were systematically razed, forcing thousands of terrified people to board ferries or take refuge in flyblown internal displacement camps in areas secured by their co-religionists. Entire areas of the once quaint capital of Kota Ambon were swiftly transformed into deserted and firebombed ruins. Communities retreated behind barricades with the occasional gutted mosque or church bearing witness to more harmonious times.
Poso, a port city in Central Sulawesi, was hit by similar waves of violence. Over 700,000 civilians were forced to flee from afflicted areas of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and the north and south Moluccan Islands. This created Indonesia's largest internal displacement crisis since the departure of Dutch colonialists in 1949.
An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed before two peace agreements signed on December 21, 2001 and February 12, 2002 in the North Sulawesi town of Malino curbed but did not end the violence. That sectarian violence is recalled today by the huddled masses in makeshift bamboo-slat houses or tents now scattered across Myanmar's western Rakhine State.
Ostensibly directed against the state's ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority but more recently targeting Muslims across the country, Buddhist mob-led violence erupted in two concentrated bursts last year in June and October last year. The violence has since spread, hitting the central town of Meikhtila, Shan State and Sagaing Region earlier this year.
A sinister deja vu has accompanied the pattern of events, where trivial incidents pitting Buddhist and Muslim citizens later escalate into days of arson, riots and killings. Speaking to the AFP news agency following the Meikhtila violence in April this year, presidential spokesman Ye Htut described the riots as the "ugly by-product" of the country's new liberalism.
New bouts of communal violence convulsed Rakhine State's Thandwe township earlier this month, resulting in five deaths and the displacement of hundreds. The anti-Muslim attacks occurred just hours before President Thein Sein was scheduled to visit the troubled remote region. In contrast with last year's largely unpunished violence, 44 arrests of both Buddhists and Muslims were announced.
Myanmar has one of the most pervasive security apparatuses in Asia. For decades it was deployed against multiple perceived threats to the state's central authority, including various ongoing ethnic insurgencies. The Thandwe violence has been accompanied by complaints from Muslims about an overwhelmingly Buddhist police force taking suspected participants in the initial attacks into custody, then releasing them soon afterwards without charge. Police have also been accused of disarming Muslims but failing to protect them when Buddhist mobs resumed attacks.
UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea said he had 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, including by well organized Buddhist mobs". He was forced to abandon a planned visit to an internally displaced person camp near Meikhtila in August when 200 protesting Buddhists attacked his caravan.
An August 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, based upon 57 interviews, accuses Rakhine security forces of not only standing idly by but actively participating in attacks against Rohingya Muslims. Witnesses in the state capital of Sittwe said they saw security forces firing on Rohingyas. In other accounts, armed Rakhine Buddhists were seen traveling with police and border guards.
For the first time since the official end of direct military rule, Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and called in the army. A sullen order returned across Sittwe, with acrid smoke wafting into the air and thousands of terrified civilians sheltering in makeshift accommodation. Despite clear evidence of security force complicity in the violence, Thein Sein's response won praise from the United States and European Union - both strong backers of his quasi-civilian regime.
The "new" Myanmar is supposedly pluralist and just as importantly open for business and investment. The refusal to do business with the previous rights-abusing junta, in which Thein Sein served as prime minister, has passed as the West suspends or lifts its previous economic sanctions. The new regime has cleverly ingratiated itself with in the US and Europe through the language of reform and democracy while at the same time neutralizing any real challenge to the military-dominated status quo.
It is a conundrum many Indonesians would have appreciated during the heady days of its post-Suharto reformasi era. If today's Myanmar is viewed in the West as a frontline bulwark against an expansionist China, Indonesia's military rulers were first a ready ally against the spread of communism and more recently a willing partner in the fight against radical Islamism.
Significantly, much of the violence that threatened to derail reformasi and restore military rule, particularly under the administrations of Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001-4), was concentrated in the nation's outer islands. These volcanic stepping stones in the archipelago, rich in spices and fossil fuels, are inhabited mostly by Christians and animists rather than Muslims.
Under Dutch colonial rule, the outer islands were deliberately populated by waves of migrants (transmigrasi) from the mostly Muslim islands of Java and Sumatra. This was ostensibly to relieve population pressures along with shortfalls in labor in local extractive industries. After achieving independence in 1945, this also became a strategy - never officially acknowledged - aimed at forestalling any separatist rebellions by diluting the indigenous population.
Like Myanmar after 1948, newly independent Indonesia was challenged by multiple ethnic and religious rebellions. As early as April 1950, the Republik Maluku Selatan (South Moluccas) was declared and although the rebellion was soon extinguished, the fear of residual nationalism in the islands still haunts Jakarta.
It was partly on the pretext of quelling revived "Christian" separatist aspirations supposedly let loose by the end of the New Order that thousands of "volunteers" were dispatched to Maluku, Poso and more recently West Papua. The largest of several Islamist groups active in these regions was known as Laskar Jihad. Its leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, was a veteran of the anti-Soviet Jihad during the 1980s who had studied in a Saudi-funded university in Jakarta and the Maududi Institute in Pakistan.
The specter of the preman (hired thug) used as an enforcer to intimidate rivals is an old tradition in Indonesia, long predating Suharto's iron-fisted rule. To a large extent, the reformasi period represented a synthesis of the preman and the jihadist Laskar Jihad, like other Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF), have also boycotted foreign concerts, attacked bars, brothels, nightclubs and perceived as heretical forms of Islam such as the Ahmadiyya sect.
That the radical groups had sympathizers within the predominantly Muslim armed forces was evidenced when Wahid's executive order of a naval blockade against jihadists traveling to the outer islands in mid-2000 was openly ignored. The IDF is notorious for having links to the Jakarta police, despite vociferous denials, and former armed forces commander Wiranto.
In today's Myanmar, the radical Buddhist 969 movement and the ultra-nationalist Rakhine National Development Party are known to have powerful, national-level political patrons. 969 spiritual leader U Wirathu has goaded on violence against Muslims in xenophobic speeches. 969 followers have led many of the recent anti-Muslim riots, including the recent violence at Thandwe.
In June, The Irrawaddy newsmagazine quoted anti-969 monk U Pantavunsa saying: "Thirty thousand copies of a DVD with 969 talks have been distributed in Yangon. So it's very evident that they have a sponsor to distribute them on a large scale. There are several possibilities: cronies who would be comfortable doing business with the former military regime or some hardliners reluctant to undergo reform who might secretly finance them."
During Indonesia's communal clashes, collusion between armed gangs and national security forces was not always part of a grand conspiracy. Over decades many a separatist guerrilla in Aceh, East Timor or West Papua was able to source weaponry - if the price was right - from corrupt or underpaid police or soldiers. On numerous other occasions, weaponry was looted from government facilities. Aside from machetes and spears, local gangs and militia in Poso and Ambon improvised homemade guns accurate to a range of around 80 meters.
HRW's account of last year's collusion between Rakhine Buddhist extremists and security forces recalled the notorious attack on Duma, a Christian village on the Moluccan island of Halmahera in June 2000. As Laskar Jihad fighters descended on the village, eyewitnesses described how soldiers from Battalions 511 and 512 donned white robes and began joining in the attack.