By Omkar Mahajan
Myanmar has always been a predominantly Buddhist nation with a sizable Muslim minority. In fact, there have been significant tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Myanmar. Throughout history, Muslims have been persecuted in Myanmar. However, the persecutions dramatically intensified during British rule in the 1930s and have since increased with more persecutions in recent years and in the present day. Additionally, Buddhist extremist groups have since emerged preaching hate and violence towards the minority Muslim population. Even more disturbing is that despite the democratic reforms of Myanmar and the removal of its military junta, the government still oppresses and persecutes its Muslim minority. Not surprisingly, the United Nations has already condemned Myanmar for its treatment of its Muslim minority and has noted that Myanmar is committing human rights abuses towards Muslims. Muslims in Myanmar continue to be oppressed despite intervention from the United Nations and other countries, the democratic reforms of its government and the mistreatment of Muslims has only been exacerbated with the appearance of Buddhist extremist groups and vocal leaders opposed to Islam. Efforts to quell down violence and opposition towards Muslims are clearly not functioning.
What is the history between Islam and Buddhism in Myanmar?
Islam is believed to have first arrived to Myanmar from Arab merchants in the 7th century CE. Islam then appeared in greater numbers as settlements from Muslim traders and travelers arrived along the coastal regions of Myanmar. It wasn’t until the 1500s that persecution and negative sentiments towards Islam emerged significantly. The leader of Myanmar at the time, King Bayinnaung, was fiercely intolerant of Islam and prohibited Muslim practices and rituals such as Halal (Yegar 10). Persecutions of Muslims in Myanmar from that point became commonplace and many Muslims fled Myanmar. However, the negative sentiment would intensify greatly in later centuries to come.
During the British rule of Myanmar in the 1930s, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists increased. There were approximately 500,000 Muslims in Myanmar at the time and there was also a steady flow of immigrant Muslims moving from British India to British ruled Myanmar (Yegar 29). Unfortunately, due to economic hardships and the rise of xenophobia, religious and race riots targeted Muslim populations. Even though the riots were originally intended to target Indians, the British and other foreigners, the riots actually harmed many Burmese Muslims because numerous people viewed all Muslim residents there as foreigners. The Burma for Burmese Only Campaign was soon established to protest the Muslim presence in Myanmar (Yegar 37). These protests led to the destruction of 113 mosques (Yegar 37).
What did the British do about these events?
The British created a committee to investigate the real causes of these events (Yegar 38). Although the committee determined that economic hardships and sociopolitical conditions caused Burmese hardship, their efforts were short lived. They advocated that Muslims be represented on the legislative council, have the right to practice and follow their own religion and be granted full citizenship (Yegar 38). Furthermore, the Burmese Muslim Congress was founded to oversee these efforts and look after the welfare of Muslim residents in Myanmar. Unfortunately, the government under U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Myanmar shortly after Burmese independence, ignored these measures and Muslims were later oppressed.
Nu ordered the disbandment of the Burmese Muslim Congress (Yegar 75). Moreover, he later adopted Buddhism as the official religion of Myanmar angering many Muslims in Myanmar. However, a coup d’état in 1962 removed U Nu from power and replaced the government with a military junta under General Ne Win. This military government would remain in power until the 21st century.
General Win enacted numerous alterations to the government structure of Myanmar and this not only aggravated the situation and well being of its constituents, but it also exacerbated the status of Muslims in Myanmar. For instance, Muslims were banned from serving in the army. The business, media and other forms of communication were restricted and placed under the control of the military junta. The country soon became a one party system and protests against the military regime of Myanmar were violently crushed. The government also conducted a number of human rights abuses including the usage of child soldiers, systemic human trafficking and sexual slavery and forced labor. In fact, in June 2012, “Children [were] being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as $40 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol.” Forced labor was also widespread throughout Myanmar. However, the human rights abuses committed towards Muslims in Myanmar were much worse.
What was the Military Junta’s treatment of its Muslim minority?
The Military Junta committed genocide and ethnic cleansing towards its Muslim minority and violated many human rights laws towards its Muslim populations. The Rohingya people, an ethnic group that resides in Myanmar of whom the majority of Muslims in Myanmar belong to, have been persecuted ever since. First, they were denied basic citizenship rights and were treated and seen as foreigners despite residing in Myanmar for centuries. Second, the government forcibly removed Rohingya Muslims from their homeland and replaced them with Buddhist residents. Over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced from their homeland. Additional human rights abuses toward the Rohingya Muslims include but are not limited to prohibition of owning land, banned from having more than two children, and unable to travel without permission. However, in 2011 there was a democratic transition and the government was radically changed from an authoritarian regime to a unitary presidential republic. Shockingly, the status of Muslims did not improve under the democratic transition and human rights abuses continued to occur.
What is the current status of Muslims under the democratic government of Myanmar?
Despite the democratic transitions in Myanmar, the status of Muslims has not changed significantly. Muslims continue to be denied citizenship, are still unable to travel without permission, are banned from owning land, and having more than two children. What has changed is that the violence between Buddhists and the police towards Muslims has increased tremendously. Over 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State have been forced to evacuate and leave Myanmar as a result of the ongoing violence. Many have escaped to Thailand, Malaysia or even Australia for refuge. An additional 100,000 Muslims have left Myanmar out of fear of persecution. The 2012 Rakhine State riots, located in the eastern state of Rakhine, enlarged the amount of violence occurring between Buddhists and Muslims. Entire villages were destroyed and over 80,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced just from those riots alone. A civil war between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists has also been taking place in the Kachin State, located in the northern part of Myanmar. As a result of this, the government intervened declaring it a state emergency and imposing curfews in those regions and sent military forces to handle the matter.
Furthermore, in September 2012, President Thein Sein promoted a controversial plan that, in his own words, would “send [Muslims] away if any third world country would accept them”. Sadly, there has been a growing tendency from the military to target Rohingya Muslims through arrests and violence. Nonetheless, the international community did not tolerate such actions and did intervene as a result.
In what ways did the international community intervene in Myanmar?
First, the United States and the European Union both placed strict economic sanctions and other trade barriers in place towards Myanmar. Unfortunately, this had the adverse effect of harming civilians in Myanmar instead of the general government. Since the democratic transitions, the sanctions have been lessened. Many international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations have condemned the human rights abuses that have occurred in Myanmar. Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant to the President on Human Rights, documented that “serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children” and despite the United Nations General Assembly urging the Burmese government to respect human rights, violations and mistreatment of Muslims continue to occur. Unfortunately, active international involvement in Myanmar to salvage the situation and status of Muslims has been minimal and ineffective.
Why is oppression and violence occurring to Muslims from the general populace and the government in the first place?
First, there have been a number of Buddhist monks who have actively advocated the persecution and killing of Muslims. U Nyarna, a Buddhist monk and leader of a local monastery, has called for the expulsion and killing of Muslims. His followers plan on sending Muslims in Myanmar into camps where they will later be deported to other countries willing to take them. Nyarna justifies his actions by asserting that “although killing is wrong, people cannot be saints in times where they feel threatened.” But, Nyarna is not the most vocal leader or most influential opponent towards Islam amongst the Buddhist community in Myanmar. In fact, Nyarna pales in comparison to Ashin Wirathu, an enigmatic leader who appears to be more of a dogmatic extremist than a zealous monk devoted to his religion.
Wirathu, the leader of the 969 movement in Myanmar, is a Buddhist monk who is one of the most extreme opponents towards Islam in Myanmar. Despite claiming to be a simple preacher who isn’t hateful, his speeches are often filled with rhetoric blaming Muslims and encouraging violence towards them. He led a rally of monks to promote and support President Sein’s plan to expel Muslims from the country. He also called for the boycott of Muslim owned stores and restrictions on interreligious marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. The 969 movement, which he created, calls for the permanent removal of Islam in Myanmar. Access to the internet and social media has allowed Wirathu to reach more followers. He has been able to post his sermons inciting hate and violence on Youtube. His commanding presence and powerful oratorical skills have allowed him to incite fear in Buddhist people that Islam in Myanmar poses a threat and needs to be dealt with. He argues that Buddhism is under attack from Islam and the nationalistic sentiments he echoes resonates with many Buddhist citizens of Myanmar who feel strongly about their religion. Even more disturbing is the fact that the President of Myanmar has defended Wirathu. Extremist leaders like Wirathu are the reason why violence against Muslims in Myanmar continues to occur. International intervention is needed to quell down the violence occurring and salvage the plight of the Muslims in Myanmar. After all, despite the democratic transitions in Myanmar and the minimal involvement from the international community, oppression towards Muslims is occurring at a growing scale and it is clear that greater intervention and pressure will have to occur.
Yegar, Moshe. The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, by Moshe Yegar. Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1972. Print.
Photo By: Global Panorama