A minor pedestrian collision in a small town in Myanmar led to rioting and nine injuries on Tuesday, proof that Myanmar’s fraught religious and ethnic relations are still at a boiling point. Police were quick to intervene, but the event is a stark reminder that while the new government gets praise for reform, liberalization can have unintended consequences.
The clashes in Okkan, about 75km north of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, took place after a Muslim woman bumped into a Buddhist monk. According to local media, a case was opened against the woman at the town’s police station and by early afternoon around 200 Buddhists began to throw bricks at a mosque. Police in Okkan fired warning shots near the rioters, according to the local police department, which dispersed the crowd.
A similar escalation in Meiktila last month, led to the deaths of up to 50 Muslims and displaced thousands. Muslims, a minority in Myanmar at about 5% of the population, have frequently been the target of violence, and Burmese police have often been unwilling to intervene—as a recent BBC video showed. The violence is not exclusively Buddhist on Muslim. Last year people of both religions butchered each other near the town of Sittwe.
Experts widely agree that as the grip of the junta fades in Myanmar, the lid has been lifted on ethnic tensions. Ironically, President Thein Sein was awarded a peace prize this month just days after a Human Rights Watch report accused the government of allowing security forces to participate in ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingya Muslims. Sadly, the religious violence in Okkan is unlikely to be the last in Myanmar.