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FEER: Ethnic Scapegoat
Pent-up anger fuels anti-foreigner riots
By Bertil Lintner in Bangkok
April 10, 1997
March 27, Armed Forces Day in Burma, used to be a day of
with civilians garlanding soldiers in the streets of Rangoon.
But since the
army crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, the soldiers
parading inside a sealed-off park, while citizens watch the
This year, the polarization was even more evident. Helicopters
overhead and security was tight as the country recovered from
bout of unrest, this time involving Buddhist monks. And yet
ruling junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, has
the crisis by refusing to address public grievances.
According to a Slorc information sheet dated March 25, the
erupted when "a Buddhist girl was molested by a Muslim youth"
northern city of Mandalay. Then, "elements bent on creating
exploited the situation." The Slorc bulletin said that mosques
to create misunderstanding between Burma and Muslim countries
Asean, which the country is expected to join this year. As the
spread to towns all over Burma, the authorities stepped in to
and order" and to "protect Muslim communities."
Local sources, however, tell a different story. They say the
earlier this year when the military decided to renovate the
Pagoda in Mandalay. "But after the job was done, it looked
before," says a source from Mandalay. Rumours circulated that
stones were missing from the pagoda's Buddha image.
The abbots then demanded a meeting with the Mandalay
Maj.-Gen. Ye Myint. They took the opportunity to raise other
among them the influx of foreigners to Mandalay. Since the
city opened up
to foreign trade in 1989, thousands of Chinese have moved in,
shops, property, hotels and restaurants. "Our city is being
foreigners," an abbot is reported to have told the general.
Many Chinese arrive in Mandalay armed with Burmese identity
cards. "If a
person in Mandalay dies, his or her relatives send the ID card
to a broker in
Yunnan, who in turn sells it to a would-be Chinese emigrant
becomes a Burmese citizen," explains a Sino-Burmese who's
involved in the
Other Chinese are former rebels of the defunct Communist Party
In exchange for making peace with the government, they've been
to engage in any kind of business, the most lucrative being
Triangle drug trade.
It was in the context of foreigners swamping Mandalay that the
mentioned that a Buddhist girl was raped by some Muslims of
origin, who were freed after a 30,000-kyat ($4,778) bribe to
the police. "But
of all these issues, the military decided to announce only the
last one," the
source from Mandalay says. Pent-up frustration led to
with the Muslim minority bearing the brunt of the attacks.
The events show how sensitive the issue of Chinese migration
Mandalay is, says an Asian diplomat based in Rangoon, and how
incident can lead to nationwide unrest. Monks and other people
took to the
streets in Moulmein, Shwebo, Thazi, Amarapura, Sagaing and
isolated towns in the Irrawaddy delta. "It's not difficult to
divert the anger
to the Muslims," says a Western diplomat in Rangoon. "The
brought in by the British during the colonial days, and
sentiments have been strong in Burma ever since."
The scapegoats were perhaps necessary to avoid a more serious
involving the Chinese community in Burma. Close relations with
the cornerstone of the regime's foreign policy. Burma and
signed a new border-cooperation agreement, and Luo Gan,
secretary-general of China's State Council, pledged a
($121,000) loan to Slorc.
"We are aware of rising anti-Chinese sentiment," says one of
Sino-Burmese who have lived in the country for generations.
December, several Sino-Burmese expressed their concern to the
embassy in Rangoon after the army used tanks to intimidate
demonstrators. "The tanks were Chinese-made, and any Chinese
association with the brutal nature of the regime could
backfire on the
Sino-Burmese community," says a Western visitor to Rangoon.
This time, Muslims were the victims of public anger. But if
grievances are met with the same attitude by Slorc, there
could be more