Tuesday, 23 April 2013

MYANMAR:''Analysis'': Buddhists & Muslims

Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside a city in central Myanmar where clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left at least 20 people dead, according to residents, a member of Parliament and local journalists. A picture of chaos and anarchy emerged from the city of Meiktila, where mobs of Buddhists, some of them led by monks, have ransacked and burned Muslim neighborhoods since Wednesday.

Calm has been restored in Meikhtila and other volatile central areas after authorities imposed martial law and dispatched troops. However, evidences show it was well organised, abetted at times by police turning a blind eye.

On 28 March 2013, President Thein Sein publicly declared that he would begin using force to stop religious conflict and rioting in Myanmar. This was the president’s first public comment on the issue since 40 Muslims were killed during rioting in central Myanmar the week before. About 12,000 were forced out of their homes and into refugee shelters as a direct result of that rioting, which included burning of Muslim houses and mosques. This was the worst instance of violence against Muslims in the past year. I am not sure that he has done something so far...

Last month simmering animosity burst into the open once again. A brawl between Buddhists and Muslims in a gold shop in the central Burmese town of Meiktila triggered two days of violence, during which more than 800 homes in the town, mostly Muslim, were razed. The Buddhist mobs who perpetrated the violence were well-organized, and that the police stood by and watched as killings were carried out in broad daylight. Such reports have led to accusations of official complicity in the violence. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is threatened by reforms.

A Human Rights Watch report directly implicates "political and religious leaders in Arakan State" in the planning, organization, and incitement of attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims last October. The report is the most comprehensive evidence yet that the Burmese government colluded in a wave of ethnic attacks and was released just hours before the EU was due to drop sanctions on the Burmese regime as a reward for reformist pledges at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority of one million people that has lived in Rakhine state for centuries. But they face systematic religious and ethnic discrimination because under Myanmar’s constitution, they are not classified as one of 135 legally recognized ethnic minority groups with Myanmar citizenship. Ethnic Burmese consider the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as its citizens.

Violence against Muslims is not just targeted against the Rohingya; Muslims living in other states have also been targets of ethnic, racial, and religiously motivated violence. The Burmese government has committed atrocities against Muslims, including mass killings and rapes, burning of Muslim villages, arrests, forced labor, and torture.

If the military-led government may have helped to ignite the Arakan and Meiktila conflicts, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in Arakan state, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.

That movement has seen a resurgence since the Arakan rioting last year whipped up anti-Muslim fervor across Burma. The situation in Meiktila appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.

Most narratives of the violence have painted the 969 movement as a cohesive anti-Muslim front that seeks to purge Burma of what it considers a pernicious Islamic presence. Anti-violence protests have used 969 as a symbol to rally against. Yet the diverging opinions of those who distribute and carry the symbol shows that this is not so clear-cut. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it more as an identifier of Buddhist solidarity, as Christians display crucifixes. Many say the adoption of 969 as the movement's symbol was done to counter 786, a numerologically important symbol to Muslims that is also seen on some shop fronts.

Extremists are trying legitimize an objectionable philosophy by drawing on the spiritual "goodness" of what 969 represents: the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, the religious council that administers Buddhist institutions in Burma. This inevitably gives the movement an immediate appeal among Buddhists, and its leaders can then exploit underlying anti-Muslim sentiment to garner supporters, witting or unwitting.

The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham last month, anti-Muslim posters began appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.

This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP