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Muslims From Yangon Share Stories of Discrimination

A young Rohingya man bearing the scars of a shooting by Local Buddhists during the violence in June 2012. Photo by Dougal Thomas.

Hanna Ingber

July 12, 2013

Myanmar’s Muslim minority has faced a series of deadly attacks over the past year that have tarnished the country’s image even as it is trying to transform itself into a stable, peaceful democracy after decades of military rule. As my colleague Thomas Fuller has reported, sectarian clashes in the western state of Rakhine in 2012 left at least 167 dead and forced 100,000 people, most of them Muslims, to flee their homes. Buddhist mobs went on a rampage in Meiktila in central Myanmar in March, killing dozens. And critics say a radical Buddhist movement has fanned the flames of discrimination, discouraging Buddhists from doing business with Muslims or intermarrying.

The violence has raised fears among Muslims in Yangon and elsewhere that they, too, could come under attack.

Asked on Facebook to share with The Times their personal experiences with religious discrimination, a handful of Burmese Muslims wrote to us about the prejudice they have felt from colleagues, fellow students and even teachers. One woman said several members of her extended family, including one who was pregnant, were killed 10 years ago in an attack by Buddhists. The responses reflected a sense that while there has been an increase in attacks since Myanmar, also known as Burma, began opening up, the sectarian divisions within society have deep roots.

Below are four such responses, which were submitted in English.

Moe, 34, grew up in Yangon and was one of the few Muslim students in a school with mostly Buddhists. Classmates and some teachers, he wrote in an e-mail, harassed him for being Muslim and called him “kalar,” a pejorative word used to describe people from South Asia or people of Indian ancestry.

“When you dig out the history, today violence towards Muslims are not new. We have grown up with fears,” wrote Moe, who asked to be referred to by his middle name.

When Moe was 18, he applied for a national registration card with his friend, who was Buddhist. The cards are used to prove citizenship, according to the State Department. While the friend received his card two weeks later, Moe said his never came. After a few months, Moe asked the immigration officer about the delay. According to Moe, the officer told him that he had been directed not to give such cards to Muslims.

“He took out my application form and threw it on the floor. I collected it from the floor with tears in my eyes,” Moe wrote. “Some Buddhist applicants were laughing at me.”

Moe applied again years later. After a lengthy process, which he said included the paying of multiple bribes and being forced to incorrectly identify his race as Bengali, he received the card.

“That day was happiest day for me. But my mother owed debt for me,” he wrote.

Ten years ago, one reader wrote, Buddhist activists attacked the home of a cousins’ family in Kyaukse, a town in central Myanmar about 70 miles from Meiktila. She said the activists blocked the entrance to the home as they set it on fire, causing five of the relatives, including two children and a pregnant woman, to burn to death.

The reader has since moved abroad, but did not want to be identified as she returns to the country for visits. She now worries for the safety of her family in Yangon.

“After some recent events, I am still worried for my family in Myanmar, especially for my old mother, so I try to call them and check now and then to make sure they are all right,” she wrote. “I really hope some peaceful days will be ahead for my fellow Muslims living in Myanmar.”

One woman who identified herself as a teacher at a public high school in Yangon said that in May she was forced by the head of her school to quit her job and transfer her class to a different teacher. After pressing for a reason, the teacher, who asked that her name not be used, was told it was because she was a Muslim. Local officials, she said, told the school that there could be no Muslim teachers in the area this year.

“As soon as I heard that, tears flowed down n I couldn’t stand up straight,” she wrote. “Then I transferred my class. I feel regret: being a teacher in Myanmar, studying hard for 6 years to get M.Ed. degree, molding the students as good citizens, trying my best during 10 years experience as a senior teacher & having hobby of teaching. How cruel discrimination it is!”

Wayne, 22, grew up in Yangon and said that he faced discrimination in school from the age of 5 because he is Muslim.

“Almost everyday in school, people made fun of me and my other friends of minority religions such as Islam and Christianity,” said Wayne, who has since moved abroad.

Some teachers in his schools also made derogatory comments against non-Buddhists during class.

“They sometimes mentioned unnecessary things during history classes such as how Muslims (especially Indians) made good slaves in the past and the class would break into a mocking laughter,” wrote Wayne, who asked to be identified by his middle name.

“Another teacher (ironically my best English grammar teacher) mentioned openly” that he hated Muslims, he wrote.

Wayne said that when he was in his final year of high school, he received a merit-based scholarship to attend an education program abroad. However, he said, the teacher announced to the class that the scholarship had been revoked because of his religion.

“She spilled her words with such a cold and cruel tone as if it was my fault that I am not a Buddhist and as if the action was completely fair,” Wayne wrote.

Wayne said that his relatives back home now face even greater difficulties because of the radical Buddhist movement, which calls itself 969.

“Because of these, some of my friends and relatives there in Myanmar now are having difficulties in running their businesses,” he wrote.