Screwdrivers and Slingshots: Inside Burma’s Erupting Sectarian Strife

Obama's first official foreign visit might not go as smoothly as planned.

12 November 2012, 10:30am

Burma’s transition from a military-controlled state to a fledgling democracy has been touted by the Obama administration as one of its most impressive first-term foreign policy achievements. So much so that the president plans on visiting the country in two weeks. It will be his first foreign trip after his re-election.

But cycles of revenge attacks between two religious groups in the country’s most westerly state, Rakhine, have complicated the picture of a peaceful, Buddhist democracy flourishing in south-east Asia.

This summer, violence between Burmese Rakhine Buddhists and immigrant Muslim Rohingya people caused the death of around 60 people and the displacement of over 90,000 residents of that region. That ethnic conflict has once again escalated in the last few weeks.

I travelled to Rakhine in June and found communities paralysed by turmoil. Workers had stopped turning up for work since the fighting began. At night they defended their villages from creeping arsonists. Acres of downtown Sittwe, the state’s capital, were blackened wastelands, whole blocks of wooden houses turned to ash.

People built ten-foot high wooden fences between Buddhist and Muslim areas. Rakhine men sharpened bamboo spears, and prowled the dirt streets clutching screwdrivers, rocks, or anything they could use as weapons. Even children snuck about with slingshots made of rusty metal and bicycle inner tube. They fire six-inch barbed nails, called “jinglee” into villages, and set fire to homes. 

The Rakhine accuse the Rohingya of invasion, believing they plan on creating a separate Muslim country. More and more Rohingya villagers have been displaced, fleeing the Buddhist-led violence. As Burma’s military struggled to contain and downplay the violence, President U Thein Sein admitted that the country's push for democracy is jeopardised by ethnic strife.

Photos by Spike Johnson