Bangkok: Two years after a repressive junta ceded power, Myanmar is grappling with a surge in religious extremism that experts trace to anti-Muslim "provocateurs" including radical Buddhist monks.

At least 43 people have been killed while mosques and Muslim homes have been destroyed over the past fortnight in central Myanmar, in a wave of violence that witnesses say seems to have been well organized.

"It is clear that there are some agents’ provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country -- including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims," said Jim Della-Giacoma, a Myanmar expert with the International Crisis Group think-tank.

"Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighbourhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements," he added. Monks -- once at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement and viewed with reverence in this devout Buddhist-majority nation -- have been linked to the unrest.

Some members of the clergy have been involved in the violence, while others are spearheading a move to shun shops owned by Muslims and only visit stores run by Buddhists, identified by stickers showing the number "969", which has become a symbol of their campaign.

"When the profit goes to the enemy's hand, our nationality, language and religion are all harmed," said Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay whose anti-Muslim remarks have come under recent scrutiny. "They will take girls with this money. They will force them to convert religion. All children born to them will be a danger to the country. They will destroy the language as well as the religion," he said in a speech put online.

More moderate voices among civil society activists and religious leaders are calling for the country to defuse violence that has cast a shadow over the Buddhist-majority nation's political reforms. "We need to fight this incitement by a group of bad people," said Thet Swe Win, a human rights activist who co-organised a recent "Pray for Myanmar" peace event in Yangon.

"We must prevent racial and religious disputes," he added. The apparent spark for the recent violence was an argument in a gold shop in the town of Meiktila on March 20 that escalated into a full-scale riot. Since then armed gangs have roamed from town to town in central Myanmar razing mosques and Muslim homes.


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