In the central city of Mandalay, thousands of Buddhist monks have gathered to demonstrate against the minority Muslim community called the Rohingya. Myanmar remains deeply divided among religious and ethnic lines.
A long row of monks clad in dark, red robes marches through the streets of Mandalay on Sunday (02.09.2012). Supporters and curious bystanders flank the streets. One banner carries a call to action: "Protect mother Myanmar by supporting the president!"
They are the same monks who in 2007 protested against the military junta, according to Myanmar expert Hans-Bernd Zöllner. The junta, which supports current President Thein Sein, brutally suppressed those demonstrations.
So what caused the monks to change their mind and support the military-backed president?
"The Muslims and especially the Rohingya were always the whipping boys," Zöllner told DW. The Myanmar expert said it's a sad tradition that stretches back to the British colonial era.
The Muslim Rohingya live mostly in the western region of Myanmar, in the province of Rakhine near the border with Bangladesh. They are not considered citizens of Myanmar and do not belong to any of the ethnic minorities officially recognized by the government. The United Nations counts them as one of the most threatened ethnic groups in the world.
In the past few months, the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Rakhine have engaged in bloody clashes. At least 90 people have been killed in the violence.
On the one hand, President Thein Sein has blamed both Buddhist monks and politicians for stoking the unrest. But in the same stroke, the president told the UN refugee agency in July that it was not possible to recognize the Rohingya. He claims that they are illegal immigrants and are not ethnic Burmese.
'Skewed version of reality'
The monks took these comments as cause to mobilize against the Rohingya and the UN, according to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Asia division.
Robertson said that the monks are "using the UN as a sort of target for that anger, by claiming speciously or falsely that the UN somehow is one sided on this, that it only supports the Rohingya and doesn't support the Rakhine."
But according to Robertson, the UN has demonstrably supported the Buddhists in Rakhine.
"The fundamental issue is that the monks and those supporting them … have a skewed version of reality," he said.
Old prejudices die hard
This skewed version of reality, in which racism and discrimination play a central role, is not a new phenomenon. Marco Bünte, a Myanmar researcher from Hamburg, believes that tensions which always existed are simply coming to the surface now.
"Increasing freedom opens space to live out old resentments," Bünte told DW.
And Zöllner argues the West has been so focused on Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratization process that it has overlooked the complex and diverging interests that exist in the country.
"In my view, Myanmar - with its tense multiethnic makeup - is a powder keg, which will explode if it is not run by a strong hand," he said.
While Zöllner believes the reforms were necessary and right, he views them as insufficient. Above all, Myanmar needs time.
"The reforms are a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation and internal peace," he said. "Over the long-term, the economic, ethnic and cultural differences have to be eliminated. That will take 20 to 40 years."
Grim prospects for minorities
Robertson of HRW characterizes the fate of the Rohingya as a key milestone for Myanmar's democratization.
"The Rohingya are an important test case for a multiethnic Myanmar," he said. "Unfortunately, the government has failed up to this point," because the security forces have taken the side of the Buddhists.
Zöllner, for his part, says that "the Rohingya problematic is a special case," since the plight of the Rohingya has little impact on the cohesion of Myanmar. As a consequence, nobody can take the side of the Rohingya without losing some influence among the majority Buddhists. It doesn't matter whether it's the government, the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi or any other party.
As long as the structural problems for the Buddhist majority remain unsolved, it is unlikely that the situation for the Rohingya will improve.