There are reports that the perpetrators of these massacres are well-organized, and that the police usually stands by and watches as killings are carried out in broad daylight. Such reports lead to accusations of official complicity in the massacres. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is fading away.
If the army may have helped to ignite the Rakhine massacres, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in Rakhibe and Arakan states, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.
The situation in Rakhine appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.
The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham, anti-Muslim posters begin appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.
This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.
By Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert