Anti-muslim vigilante groups led by Buddhist nationalists risk stirring communal tensions in Myanmar’s most populated and ethnically diverse city.

In recent months, extremist mobs have descended upon Yangon’s various townships in an attempt to clampdown on followers of Islam, and to hunt-down Rohingya muslims, who are widely considered illegal immigrants in the majority Buddhist nation.

Alongside holding protests and stopping religious ceremonies, on April 28, hardline monks and their followers forced the temporary closure of two Muslims schools they believed were also serving as mosques.  o

On early Wednesday morning, a group reportedly of around 30 Buddhists led a failed search for Rohingya in a Yangon district with a large Muslim population—culminating in a melee between the nationalists, locals and authorities, with police firing shots to disperse the crowd.

In a media conference on Thursday in Yangon, a senior leader of the Patriotic Monks Union (PMU)—the group responsible for both incidents—vowed to “protect race and religion” in Myanmar on behalf of “reluctant” authorities. Reuters later reported that two radicals from the PMU had been arrested, and that police had warrants to make further arrests. 

For the densely populated city of over 5 million people—home to a notable Muslim community—recent events and the free presence of nationalists are a deeply troubling sign in a country plagued by visceral ethno-religious tension.

Decades of state-led nationalism aimed at shielding the predominantly Buddhist Bamar ethnic group—estimated at 68% of the population today—has gained impetus among Myanmar’s monkhood, an institution with gargantuan civilian sway.

Since 2011, organizations like the 969 Movement, championed by Buddhist cleric Ashin Wirathu—who has been dubbed by foreign media as the “Buddhist bin Laden”— have won strong following for their nativist vitriol using online platforms amid censorship-loosening reforms.

The hatred has largely targeted the nation’s roughly 4% Muslim population—particularly Rakhine state’s ethnic Rohingya, who the United Nations consider “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”

In 2012, deadly communal Muslim-Buddhist violence broke out in the northwestern state, displacing thousands of Rohingya. Compounding decades of repression, in October the military began a violent crackdown on the minority after the murder of border security guards allegedly by Rohingya militants.

The recent incidents in Yangon were linked to court appearances by PMU seniors in the city, who faced incitement charges earlier on each day, according to local magazine Frontier Myanmar—which also noted the role of extremist social media accounts in trying to mobilize and spread rumors to feed Wednesday’s showdown.

Given that spurious claims online helped to fuel previous violent communal episodes, the combination of mistrust, nationalist sentiment and confined urban spaces in Yangon is a powder keg for authorities who face little chance of maintaining the rule of law amid the speed of online organization and messaging.

Though the arrest warrants show some willingness on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to quell ethnic tensions—something the Nobel laureate has been widely criticized for ignoring—the increasingly explosive environment also exposes the limits of the de facto leader’s reach.

Her National League for Democracy party—which won landslide elections in 2015—may risk sparking a backlash from nationalist sympathizers. “[I]t’s very sensitive when you’re dealing with monks in this very highly Buddhist country,” the former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell told Voice of America’s Burmese Service, following Wednesday’s events.

Given the nationalist threats to enact their own form of urban mob justice, Brigadier General Mya Win, the commander of Yangon’s regional police security command, told Reuters that police were on high alert. “We are patrolling around Muslim areas and have taken security measures around places of worship.”

With about 10,000 monks expected to attend a major extremist group’s nationwide congress in Yangon in a fortnight, many are watching on nervously.

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.

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