Burmese Buddhists turn on Muslim minority

Buddhist extremists are stirring up hatred of Rohingya and other Muslims in a display of racism that is part of a political agenda

A checkpoint leads into the Aung Mingalar sector of Sittwe. Photograph: Tom Farrell

A checkpoint leads into the Aung Mingalar sector of Sittwe. Photograph: Tom Farrell


Just beyond the administrative buildings in Sittwe, capital of the state of Rakhine (Arakan) in northwestern Burma, a checkpoint halts all unauthorised travel into the town’s last Muslim quarter. The police sit around looking listless in the tropical heat. A few hundred metres beyond is Aung Mingalar, into which about 7,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims were confined following last year’s violence.

In June and October last year, vicious clashes between Muslims and Buddhists convulsed Rakhine. Buddhists, who form the majority, targeted the Rohingya, a much despised minority. They were divested of their citizenship in 1982 and have so far seen few benefits during the rapid liberalisation after March 2011 when a decades-old junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government. But sporadic violence has continued into this year and spread into other regions of Burma. The targets now include non-Rohingya Muslims who collectively make up about 5 per cent of Burma’s 60 million population.

A somewhat surreal situation ensues when a local Rohingya activist and translator named Aung Win (57) approaches the checkpoint. Although he cannot proceed up the road, he is able to talk over his mobile phone from a few dozen metres away.

“If anyone wants to go out of here, they have to pay 15,000 kyat (€12) for one trip. Up and down, they charge 30,000 kyat and only for a two-hour journey,” he says, adding that access to medical care is severely restricted.

It started in June last year, he says. “Strangers from outside of Sittwe and then the Rakhine extremists arrived and attacked the Rohingya villages. In total more than 13 villages were hit and they killed more than 100 people.”

Run-down mosque
Win’s home was located behind Sittwe’s Nobel Hotel on the town’s main road. On the far side, near the Rakhine State Museum, the Jama Mosque, built in 1859, should have pride of place as a local landmark. But its grounds are overgrown by tropical trees and creepers. The main entrance is blocked by a line of Rakhine-owned stalls made of wood and corrugated iron, selling soft drinks and snacks.

A side entrance is blocked by a pair of rifle-toting policemen. Further down the street, a billboard advertises this year’s Southeast Asian Games, hosted by Burma.

It has long been a pariah state, subject to sanctions and notorious for annulling the results of a popular vote in 1990. The nation’s re-emergence is underscored by President Thein Sein’s success in securing Burma’s role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year.

What has been tentatively termed a “Burma Spring” is proceeding at speed. In 2011, the 68-year-old Sein became the country’s first non-interim civilian president in 49 years.

Later that year, he had a high-profile meeting with the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), was allowed to contest byelections last April and she now sits as an MP and is chair of the Committee for the Rule of the Law and Tranquillity.

Poverty and corruption
But most of Thein Sein’s national-level appointees are serving or former military officers and, in both levels of the legislature, a sizeable minority of seats are still held by the Tatmadaw (army). The 2010 general election that resulted in his Union Solidarity Development Party getting more than 75 per cent of the seats was condemned internationally as rigged. Burma has about 85,000 villages and the majority are below the poverty line. Rampant land-grabbing took place over the years by the Tatmadaw and its business cronies and there has been little effort to address land reform issues.

This may partly explain the heightened communal tensions. At government buildings, a request for a pass into a “Rohingya” refugee camp meets with the barbed retort: “They are not Rohingyas! They are Bengalis!”

In the mindset of many Rakhine Buddhists, the Rohingya, with their subcontinental appearance and Islamic faith, are the descendents of migrants from Bangladesh a few generations ago.

“[Rohingyas] were present in Rakhine State 1,500 years ago,” says Abu Tahay, a legal expert and activist. “This is already proven by the stone monuments erected in the eighth century in Rakhine State. According to the script on the stone, we can see a Rohingya dialect 100 per cent different to the spoken Rakhine dialect of today.”

The junta’s 1982 Citizenship Law made the Rohingya stateless – they needed permission to travel from their townships, were banned from owning land and were limited to two children per family. Operations by the Tatmadaw in 1978 and 1991 created thousands of refugees. There are about 300,000 Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh and 100,000 on the Thai border. The bitter irony is that the “Bengalis” have fared little better in the land of their supposed ancestry. Bangladesh routinely turns back “boat people” crossing the Bay of Bengal. During last year’s riots, the Bangladeshi foreign minister stressed his country did not have the resources to house another large influx of refugees.

A fragmented road leads away from Sittwe’s rice and fish markets with their spectacular views of the Kaladan river and Baronga Island. Rows of makeshift buildings constructed of bamboo and local hardwoods appear on the outskirts of town along with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At Set Yone Su camp, 150 families languish in land turned swampy by the rains. Adults sit in the unsanitary environs and stifling heat while children scamper around.

The first wave of violence erupted last summer. The trigger was the brutal rape and murder of a 27-year-old Rakhine woman in the town of Kyaukphu, allegedly by three Rohingya men.

On June 3rd, 10 Rohingya passengers were killed when a Rakhine mob stopped a bus in another town. A week later, as arson and rioting spread to Sittwe, Thein Sein declared a state of emergency for the first time since taking power, ordering the army to restore order.

After violence erupted once more in Rakhine State in October, Doctors Without Borders reported that posters and pamphlets were being distributed in the state, warning local staff not to treat Muslims. By then, 192 people were dead and 140,000 displaced.

Much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric is associated with the “969” movement, so called because it is said to represent the nine attributes of Buddha, six of his teachings and nine of the monkhood. Based in the northern city of Mandalay, its leader is Saydaw Wirathu. He has been dubbed a “Buddhist bin-Laden” in the media for his inflammatory speeches, including claims that Rohingyas in Sittwe and elsewhere have been burning down their own homes to get international aid.

In an online video in March, he declared that “once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us they will not let us practise our religion freely . . . these Islamists have been buying land and property all over the country. They use that money to get our young Buddhist women.”

But the nature of this year’s violence, most notably in neighbouring Shan State, has indicated that the attacks are not random.

Targeted attacks
Following four days of violence in Meiktila this March, the UN secretary general’s special adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, said Muslims were “clearly targeted” and the attacks were carried out with “brutal efficiency”. Kyaw Min, a Rohingya former MP based in Rangoon, says that rhetoric feeds into wider tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in such nations as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

“According to [the 969 movement] Muslims are a danger to our national survival,” he says. “They pointed out that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were once Buddhist. Now they are 90 per cent Muslim.”

But not all Buddhists endorse the 969 line. And many see the attacks on the Rohingya and other Muslims as politically motivated.

In June, the Irrawaddy magazine and website quoted U Pantavunsa, an anti-969 monk saying that: “Buddha never lectured his disciples to be against others who have different beliefs.”

He added: “Thirty thousand copies of a DVD with 969 talks in Mon State have been distributed in Rangoon. So it’s very evident that they have a sponsor to distribute them on a large scale. There are several possibilities: cronies who would be comfortable doing business with the former military regime or some hardliners reluctant to undergo reform who might secretly finance them.”

But a general election is scheduled for 2015 and many Rohingyas fear the democratic opposition will pander to anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Aung San Suu Kyi is in a catch-22 situation,” says Kyaw Min, who spent seven years in prison in the 1990s. “If she is going to condemn all this violence openly, the Buddhist majority will withdraw their support. Only in a few cases she says something. She said the two-child policy is against human rights.”

Meanwhile in the segregated town of Sittwe, the fear of further violence is palpable.