At least 40 Muslims are reported to have been killed in Buddhist-led attacks in Myanmar's Rakhine State last week, a Fortify Rights report released last Thursday stated. 

This will be a continuing story over coming weeks as the UN and aid agencies call for a full independent investigation. It is also the latest in a long and disturbing trend of sectarian violence, and a warning of further such violence in Myanmar and the region.

Last year attacks on Muslims in Myanmar spread to areas outside the western-lying Rakhine State to Meiktila, Naypyidaw and Yangon. In the past two years at least 138,000 people have been displaced by ethnic violence in Rakhine State, according to the UN. This has led to an increase in Rohingya Muslims seeking refugee status (pictured: a Rohingya refugee camp in Myanmar), and calls for the lifting of travel restrictions to Rakhine State for journalists and aid groups.

Horrific videos circulated last year show mobs of Buddhist men beating Muslims with sticks; some videos show them being burnt alive (I'll refrain from posting that particular link). The videos went viral and calls for the international community to act were resounding, notably from predominantly Muslim states.

Other groups also made their voices known. Last year, three Indonesian men plotted an attack on the Burmese embassy in Jakarta in response to attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. 

This is a crucial year for Myanmar and its democratic transition. It is also a year that will likely be marked by further ethnic violence as the country, Asia's most ethnically diverse, plans to hold a national census beginning on 30 March. Few Myanmar people fit into just one of the country’s 152 ethnic groups or myriad linguistic groups, and inter-marriage between ethnic groups is not uncommon. As a result, the census will likely stir up a wider debate on identity that could aggravate sectarian tensions.

An under-regulated press may be contributing to ethnic tensions. The freeing of the press has seen a boom in sales of independent journals and newspapers. Many of these carry content that would, in a regulated Western media environment, be deemed libelous or inciting hate. This, coupled with one of Asia’s lowest education levels, is a recipe for ethnic and religious violence.

This has been the case with material disseminated by the anti-Muslim movement, the 969ers. The group, led by Ashin Wirathu (who once referred to himself as the 'Burmese bin Laden') has been blamed for much of the religious violence.  The Buddhist nationalism spouted by the 969ers is eerily similar to that used against Tamils in Sri Lanka. Indeed, there have been rumblings that Buddhist groups around the region have been in dialogue to learn from the experiences of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, which was largely successful in a bloody campaign against the Tamil minority.

Myanmar's 400,000 Buddhist monks are comparable in number to the Tatmadaw, the country’s military. Indeed, while not unified, the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order, wields significant power in the country. Under military rule, the Tatmadaw was so concerned about the Sangha's influence that it placed informants and infiltrators in the Sangha's ranks. Many monks marched in favour of Thein Sein's 2012 proposal to deport the country's 800,000 Rohingyas and in 2012 there was significant government support (including from Immigration Minister Khin Yi) for a discriminatory 'two-child policy' for Muslims in an effort to curb birth rates in Rakhine state.

The religious violence has already spilled over borders in South and Southeast Asia. Violence has drawn strong condemnation globally and frequently appears in Persian Gulf and Indonesian media, among others. Several bombings at Bodh Gaya, a sacred Buddhist temple in Bihar, India, were reported to be in retaliation to violence against Muslims in Myanmar

Meanwhile, other Indian press reports suggest that Rohingya Muslims are being recruited by Lashkar-e-Taiba, suggesting a new threat of Rohingya-led terror in the region. Other reports and whispers have circulated that Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and al Qaeda offshoots have established themselves in Rakhine State or along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and provided training in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices to Jammat-ul-Arakan.

Most of the reports are hyperbolic and unhelpful in stopping worsening sectarian violence. Regardless, the continued attacks on Muslims, whether from a human rights viewpoint or a strict security standpoint, must be stopped. If they are not, we could see a severe escalation that could not only lead to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar but also engulf the region in far-reaching Buddhist-Muslim violence.

Photo by Flickr user EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.