A wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence is threatening country’s burgeoning democracy.
May 27, 2013
OKKAN, Burma — Buddhists and Muslims alike often visit the stall of U Tin Maung, a repairman whose little shop beside the Okkan town mosque has been fixing broken umbrellas and faulty lighters for 25 years.
The seeming harmony was destroyed earlier this month when a mob of several hundred people used shovels, stones and swords to smash the mosque’s windows.
“They shouted, ‘Kill all Muslims!’ We were scared and ran away to hide,” says U Tin Maung, 70, a Muslim and trustee of the mosque.
“It was the first time I’ve ever seen Buddhists attack Muslims. There are rumors that this is only the first step. Next they will loot the shops,” he says.
Known officially as Myanmar, the army-ruled nation of Burma has embarked on concrete political reforms after decades of dictatorship that have earned it rewards from the West.
In November, President Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma. The Obama administration normalized ties with the country beginning in 2011, when the government announced plans for what were considered fair elections to its parliament in April 2012.
The United States has since named its first ambassador to Burma in two decades, and most of the sanctions against the country have now been dropped. On May 20, general-turned–president Thein Sein became the first Burmese leader in almost half a century to be granted a visit to the White House.
But the changes coincide with a new wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in a country where fewer than 6 million of its 60 million people are Muslim.
Decades-old ethnic conflicts remain unresolved in many areas.
In Okkan, a two-hour drive from the commercial capital Rangoon, one person died and several others were injured when more than 150 properties were destroyed in late April and early May. In March, more than 40 died in anti-Muslim violence that hit the central town of Meiktila.
Last year, more than 200 people died in western Rakhine State, where Human Rights Watch says Muslims are being subjected to “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of local authorities. The New York-based group says more than 140,000 Muslims are in prison-like refugee camps.
Obama told Thein Sein that the violence “needs to stop,” but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Washington has rewarded Burma without insisting it abide by promises to prevent further violence.
“We hope both presidents will focus on the work ahead, rather than patting themselves on the backs for a job well done,” said Frank Januzzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International.
|Repairman U Tin Maung, 70, right, fixes a broken umbrella at his stall beside the Okkan town mosque in Burma.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)|
In Okkan, barefoot Buddhist monks and nuns walk daily past the mosque, gathering alms of food or mone.In the current atmosphere, a small incident can spark deadly consequences.
The attack on the mosque happened after word spread that a Muslim woman had knocked a young monk’s alms bowl to the ground.
“I used to have Buddhist friends my age, but now they avoid me and only say, ‘Hello,’ as they pass by,” says Aung Aung Oo, 16, Tin Maung’s grandson. “I don’t think we can be good friends again.”
In the past two months, Aung Aung Oo, a motorbike mechanic, has seen Buddhist “969” stickers added to almost all the bikes he repairs. The radical, nationalist 969 movement, led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu, who spent eight years in jail for inciting anti-Muslim riots, calls for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses.
“I feel sad not angry when I see them, they are spreading hate speech,” Aung Aung Oo says.
President Sein blames political opportunists and religious extremists for the violence. Some Burmese suspect army officers eager to derail democratic reforms, and others blame the sticker campaign.
Buddhists here, from barbers to tailors, display the 969 sticker. At a market shoe stall just yards from the mosque, Khin Moe Moe, 44, a Buddhist, put one up after U Wirathu visited Okkan.
“I like the way he wants to protect our national cause; you can’t blame him for the conflicts,” she says, adding that Muslims attacked Buddhists in six recent incidents.
In a rare attempt here at ecumenical solidarity, the social network “Pray for Myanmar” handed out stickers in Rangoon in April with slogans including, “I, a Myanmar citizen, don’t discriminate by religion or race.”
“People were smiling and welcomed them, and often stuck them right next to their ‘969’ stickers!” says Htuu Lou Rae, 25, an activist on interfaith issues who founded the group Coexist.
“The more people get segregated from each other, the more alienated people will feel and the more chance riots will break out,” Rae says. Unlike during earlier, stricter times, Burma’s emerging democracy finally gives such people an opportunity “to air their frustrations in destructive ways,” Rae adds.
|A cyclist passes a barber’s shop sign bearing the popular but controversial “969” sticker.(Photo: Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY)|
Another private initiative, the Peace Machine Group, recently gathered poets and musicians for an outdoor concert for peace beside Rangoon’s Inya Lake.
“I’ve been scared about my own safety, especially alone on the streets at night,” says organizer Htet Aung Min, 30, a Muslim. “We must build friendship between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.”
Not all agree. Rangoon taxi driver, Koko U, 39, demands that Muslims known as Rohingyas, who most Burmese call Bengalis and consider illegal immigrants, “go back to Bangladesh” even though many Rohingya families go back several generations in Burma.
“They’re creating problems between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims,” he says.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a political leader and democratic activist who was freed from 15 years of house arrest in 2010, should have been more outspoken on interfaith issues, says Htuu Lou Rae of Coexist.
But Win Tin, a veteran dissident and senior figure in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, says Suu Kyi has no need for further comment on the Rohingyas as they are not a recognized nationality here.
If she said more, he says, the Arakhanese of western Burma “will accuse her of siding with the Muslims,” referring to Buddhists whose one-time regional state was overrun centuries ago by the Burmese.
At the recent peace concert, Rangoon rock singer Thu Rein talked before he took the stage about how sad he felt about the divide between Buddhists and Muslims.
“We can live together peacefully,” he said before reciting a chorus in one of his songs he hopes will spread: “We’re all human beings, even though we’re different races and religions, we still help each other.”
Contributing: Htoo Lwin Myo