by Thomas Fuller
Sittwe, Myanmar – The Buddhist monastery at the end of this coastal town is the picture of tranquility, with novice monks dressed in saffron robes who find shade under a tree and its impressive master Nyarna, greeting the visitor in a prayer room sunlit.
But these placid surroundings Nyarna message is discordant and far from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Without provocation, Nyarna launches into a tirade against Muslims, calling them invaders, and uninvited guests “vipers in our lap.” “Based on our Buddhist teachings, we should not kill,” said Nyarna. “But when we feel threatened, we can not be holy.”
The violence here in Rakhine state – where clashes have left at least 167 people dead and another 100,000 homeless, mostly Muslims – has sparked an exodus that some human rights groups condemn ethnic cleansing. It is a measure of the profound intolerance that permeates the state, strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar, the fact that religious leaders of Buddhism as Nyarna, who is the director of an association of young monks, are participating in the campaign to oust the country’s Muslims, who just recently began a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.
After a series of deadly attacks and destructive fires during the past five months, the Buddhists are demanding that Muslims can not prove legal residence three generations – a large part of nearly a million Muslims in the state – are put into camps and sent to any country willing to receive them. The hatred between Muslims and Buddhists who remained under control for five decades of military rule has been unleashed virtually in recent months.
Even the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the oppressed, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been contained in his comments on the violence. President Barack Obama made this issue a priority during his visit to the country this month – the first by a U.S. president in office at the time – while Muslim nations as diverse as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have expressed alarm.
Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar have had an uneasy coexistence throughout the decades, and in some areas for centuries, but the thin thread that held the social fabric Rakhine State have torn this year. Muslims who fled their homes now live in slum-like camps where food is scarce and medical care, surrounded by a Buddhist population that does not want them as neighbors.
“This problem must be solved urgently,” said Maung Shwe, a Muslim member of Parliament. “When there is no food or shelter, people will die.”
Conditions have become so treacherous for Muslims throughout the state Maung Shwe travels with a security force that the government provides. “I give everything a police truck,” he said. “Not just two, three or four police officers.”
Leaders of the Buddhist majority in the state say they feel threatened by what they see as the fired Muslim population from high birth rates and Islamic rituals they consider offensive, such as animal sacrifice.
“I have much fear of Islamization,” said Hlla Saw Oo, General Secretary of the Party of Rakhine Nationalities Development, the largest party in the state. “This is our native land is the land of our ancestors.”
During outbreaks of sectarian violence in June and again in October, the villagers were armed with swords, sticks and sharp rays of bicycle wheels, throwing themselves from homemade catapults. In Muslim-majority areas, some monasteries were burned. In Buddhist majority areas, mosques were destroyed. The chaos was triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist, which were blamed on Muslims.
The center of Sittwe, former outpost of the British colony, now empty, Muslims who once worked in large numbers as longshoremen and other manual jobs.
“I’m afraid to go back,” said Aye Tun Sein, who was a teacher in a government school before the shock. In your community, Teh Chajung East, 20 minutes drive from Sittwe, said no one has a job because no one can leave town, number of huts and tents. Political leaders described the almost complete segregation of Muslims as temporary, but it seems that is more permanent.
“I do not miss them,” said Win Maung, who was driving a bicycle rickshaw with and whose house was completely burned by its neighbors, in June. “The hatred we feel for each growing day by day.”
During his visit, Obama spent a considerable part of a speech at the University of Yangon focusing on the importance of diversity, particularly stressing the “danger” of the situation and telling Rakhine who heard him: “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people. “
“What we have learned in America is that there are certain principles that are universal, applying to all regardless of your looks, without regard to your origin or religion you practice,” he said.
The divisions are so deep in Rakhine state that communities can not agree on how they should be called Muslims.Many Muslims call themselves ‘Rohingya’ ethnic group is not officially recognized in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Small Muslim communities coexist with the Buddhist majority over Myanmar, but the greatest hatred is for ‘Rohingya’, in part because of their large number – at least 800.00, based on United Nations – and its concentration in the Rakhine State. (The country has 55 million people.)
Residents Rakhine Buddhists see themselves as heirs of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U. They are not considered an ethnic Burmese, while the government recognizes them as a separate group. Rakhine Buddhists say they feel squeezed, pursued by the Burman majority and threatened by the growing Muslim minority.
Before the violence, Buddhists and Muslims of Rakhine had something similar to a master-servant relationship, a system similar to a castle in which the Muslims were carrying out menial job and Buddhists were usually patterns.
“We lived side by side, but we never talked,” said May Htwe, Sittwe resident Buddhist 51, who lost his home in the violence.
A group of women burst into laughter Buddhists when asked if their children played with Muslims.
“Even a small child knows not to play with a Kalar,” a derogatory term for people of Indian descent, said Hla Thein Yi, 55.
Buddhists say that Muslims should be taken as illegal immigrants, and that they were angry that foreign countries and the news media outside abriguen sympathy for Muslims. Leaders of both groups back in history for justifications for their cause.
“These people did not migrate out of nowhere,” said Maung Shwe, the Muslim member of Parliament whose father was a police officer and whose grandfather was a landowner in Rakhine state. “They have been living there for centuries.”
President Thein Sein told a UN delegation that was visiting in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed to have citizenship. The rest was a “threat to the peace of the nation”, he said, would be placed in camps and sent abroad. United Nations rejected the idea, saying it was not in the business of creating refugees.
Some diplomats say Thein Sein has reversed that position and now speaks of recolonizing populations of internally displaced Muslims. He sent a letter to UN just before Obama’s visit, saying that once the passions to cool, he “would address contentious political dimensions, ranging from the resettlement of displaced populations to grant citizenship.” However, offered no details or timeframe. We ordered a commission of inquiry, which is expected to issue a report in the coming months.
In Sittwe, some Buddhists say they are not ready to make concessions. Nyarna, the monk, said many Muslims do not “human moral practice” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “people like them”.