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Buddhists battle Muslim minority as Myanmar convulses

A mother cradles her child amongst the 1,400 strong crowd of displaced Muslims in Lashio. To see more photos click on the box below. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Pittsburgh Post Gazette ‎
June 2, 2013

LASHIO, Myanmar — When a huge mob of Buddhist thugs crawled on the roof of Ma Sandar Soe’s shop, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze, the Buddhist businesswoman didn’t blame them for burning it to the ground despite seeing it happen with her own eyes.

Instead, her wrath was reserved for minority Muslims she accused of igniting Myanmar’s latest round of sectarian unrest.

“This happened because of the Muslims,” she declared, sifting through charred CDs in the ruins of her recording studio.

As Myanmar grapples with its transition to democracy, its Muslim minority is experiencing its perils in vivid, bloody fashion. Hundreds have died since last year as victims of sectarian strife.

In the country’s latest round of Buddhist-Muslim violence, swarms of Buddhist men roamed Lashio’s crumbling streets last week, armed with rocks and sticks and machetes. Before police and army troops stepped in, anarchic crowds had torched scores of Muslim-owned shops, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. By the time it all ended, at least one person was dead and the town’s Muslim community cowered in their homes in fear.

Ma Sandar Soe’s studio fell victim because it sat in the shadow of the mob’s main target — Lashio’s mosque. As orange flames leapt from the ashes, she explained her rationale for pointing the finger at Muslims: The Buddhist mob was provoked by reports that a Muslim man from out of town tried to burn a Buddhist woman alive. The woman survived, badly burned, and the man was arrested.

But the roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, also called Burma, are far deeper and more complex than any single incident in any single town.

“There is a deep, underlying prejudice there. Even when Buddhists say they have Muslim friends, they call them ‘kalar’ and other derogatory terms,” said Mark Farmaner of London-based Burma Campaign UK, a democracy promotion group. “That prejudice is easily exploited, and it’s a cancer that is now spreading.”

“Successive military regimes have implanted the dislike of Muslims in the mind of the general public and enacted ad hoc and de facto discriminatory restrictions,” said Sai Latt, a doctoral candidate at Canada’s Simon Fraser University who has written extensively on Muslims in Myanmar.

Myanmar society has been in a state of flux since a nominally democratic government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of harsh military rule. A liberalized economy has accompanied the political changes. And the advent of democracy has enabled hate speech to flourish.

“There are so few sanctions now on those who provide contrarian or critical or indeed radical ideas about how society should be structured,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at Australian National University. “There is this awakening of different sentiments; some of those are very progressive and democratic, in other cases they are profoundly reactionary and or authoritarian in spirit.”

Into the breach has stepped a phalanx of well-organized Buddhist monks. Aside from their religious standing, their credibility derives from historically playing a vanguard role in politics — once upon a time against British colonial rule, in more recent decades against military dictatorship.

Describing themselves as nationalists, their sermons no longer target the powerful, but instead play on deep-seated fears of the darker-skinned outsiders, Muslims of South Asian heritage who allegedly pose a threat to racial purity and national security.

Preaching all over the country, even in areas with no discernible Muslim populations, monks belonging to the radical Buddhist movement called 969 urge Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims. They accuse Muslims of rape, terrorism and other depredations. The group’s graffiti, T-shirts and stickers are seen everywhere — including Lashio.

Some suggest the anti-Muslim campaign has covert official backing, perhaps from hard-liners seeking to weaken President Thein Sein and his reform agenda.