By Sarah Taylor
Since 2012, the Burmese minority Muslim population has been the victim of increasingly violent attacks from the country’s Buddhist majority. The rape of a Buddhist woman in 2012 in the state of Rakhine in northwest Burma led to the latest upswing of communal violence between the two communities. At least 300 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, died.
The Burmese government and military have done little to prevent the spread of violence that has only gained momentum in the last two years. It has left at least 200 people dead and 150,000 homeless. However, calls from the UN and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch to label the violence as an egregious human rights violation have fallen upon deaf ears in the Burmese capital.
The Rohingyas are an unrecognized, majority-Muslim ethnicity in Burma where they have lived for at least the past 200 years, but the Buddhist majority in the country does not recognize the Rohingyas as a legal ethnic group. The United Nations defines the Rohingyas as a “religious and linguistic minority from western Myanmar” and “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
Hostilities against the Muslim minority throughout Burma, not just the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, have been mounting for decades. The anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist movement called the 969 Movement has been credited with carrying out many deadly attacks and spreading violence against Muslim communities throughout Burma.
Ashin Wirathu, one of the leaders of the 969 Movement, calls himself the “Buddhist bin Laden.” Time Magazine named him in a 2013 article as “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” highlighting Wirathu’s own anti-Muslim campaigns that have called for Buddhists across Burma to shun Muslim businesses and communities, not unlike the call across Nazi Germany to shun Jewish businesses.
Following the violence, many Rohingyas in Rakhine fled to neighboring Bangladesh. More than 200,000 of them now live in refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but only 30,000 of those refugees are legally registered and benefit from aid from the Bangladeshi government. The remaining 200,000 unregistered refugees do not.
This is not the first time that communal violence and deadly riots have forced the Rohingyas from their homes in Myanmar. The Burmese government executed, imprisoned, and tortured Rohingyas both in 1977 and from 1991-1992, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee into Bangladesh.
The current President of Burma, Thein Sein, responded to the 2012 return of ethnic violence by calling for the deportation of all Rohingyas, but backed off his original statement by organizing a committee to investigate the violence and on occasion suggested the government should offer the Rohingyas citizenship. In response to an angry backlash from the Buddhist Burmese, President Thein rescinded his offer. Even Burmese international icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, has remained silent on the issue in an appeal to her political base, which is majority Buddhist.
Where are foreign aid groups? Many aid groups like Doctors without Borders and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have attempted to observe the crisis, but Rakhine Buddhists have succeeded in keeping them out of Burma for the most part. With the economic liberalization of Burma many nations have invested in Burma’s economy. However, since most foreign investments are limited to the oil and gas sector, they have not benefitted rural states without infrastructure and oil reserves, like Rakhine state.
Is this an example of ethnic cleansing? Thant Myint-U, one of Myanmar’s leading historians, stated, “There’s a deep-seated prejudice against many minority communities.” In 1982 the government’s Citizenship Law declared the Rohingyas to be recent immigrants to Burma, even though many of them had lived in Burma for centuries. The declaration effectively rendered the Rohingyas stateless. The Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas existed peaceably for years. In 2013 the government enacted a two-child policy for the Rohingyas. Government officials have long pointed to the high birthrate of Burma’s Muslim communities as a cause of the rising tensions, a claim that a recent Harvard University study found to be untrue. Burmese citizens fear unemployment and persistent poverty, made worse by a growing population. By forcing out some of the country’s one million Rohingyas, the Buddhist Burmese may hope to lower the country’s rate of unemployment.
At this moment, the situation looks like apartheid. The Burmese state denies Rohingyas their basic rights, such as access to food, education, and healthcare, and keeps them in crowded and disease-infested camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs). In 1993, shortly after the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnia-Serbia war, Foreign Affairs defined ethnic cleansing as the “expulsion of an “undesirable” population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” The pattern of violence against and departure of Muslim Rohingyas seem to follow this definition.
By allowing the violence to continue, Burma puts two things at stake. First it gambles with the lives of up to 1 million Rohingyas. Even President Sein has, at times, suggested the best solution to the violence is to send the Rohingyas to refugee camps where international NGOs could take care of them. Second, Burma threatens its stability and the preservation of democracy.
The increase in violence may be due to the country’s shift toward democracy, which has coincided with a general shift in the country’s attitude away from tolerance and toward extremism. Two years ago the government loosened restrictions on street demonstrations, along with other revolutionary political and social reforms. Before the reforms, if a newspaper produced unverified and anti-Muslim propaganda in the time of the military junta, the censorship machine would shut the newspaper down. The introduction of the free press has proved to better spread inflammatory and “unsourced” information. According to the International Crisis Group, the senior military commander for the state admitted that some of those involved in the riots might be trying to stop the broader political reforms going on in the country by turning communities against each other. The military, in an attempt to maintain power and influence, may use the increase in violence as an excuse to seize power in a coup.
Buddhist extremists legitimize their campaign of violence through fear tactics, promoting Islamaphobia through claims of a “global Muslim power”. Rather than face the reality of the growing public support for violence against Muslims, Burmese politicians purport to support peace and non-violence while condoning the attacks with their refusal to enact any real action. In this video, journalist Nicholas Kristof interviews not only Buddhists actively promoting hatred against Muslims but also those go so far as to actually deny the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group.
The violence in Myanmar against its Muslim minority parallels an increase in violent attacks against Muslim homes and businesses in Sri Lanka. About 10% of Sri Lanka’s population is Muslim, which is considered both a religion and ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Buddhist nationalists have stirred up violence and conflict between the Buddhist and the Muslim communities that rarely existed until the last thirty years. This is especially troubling, given that the latest wave of violence occurred in late June 2014 and left many Muslims dead or homeless. The attacks came after an inflammatory rally organized by the Buddhist extremist group in Sri Lanka, Bodu Bala Sena.
By no means do all Buddhists support violence against Muslims. The Dalai Lama himself, the world-renowned Buddhist spiritual leader, has called on both Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhist officials to halt the violence, but to no avail.
Image Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs