News on Burma/Myanmar Muslims: The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp
- The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp
Friday 31 May 2013
For a nation on the mend, a one-time pariah shuffling towards responsible, representative government, there was weary, depressing familiarity about events in a place called Lashio this week.
This Burmese city, reluctant host to the latest outbreak of violence and bloodshed between Buddhists and the minority Muslims.
This episode started with a fight at a petrol pump. A few hours later, however, Buddhist mobs were patrolling the streets, burning Muslim homes and businesses and handing out vigilante justice. A man was hacked to death, a mosque and orphanage were destroyed and hundreds of Muslim families are now sheltering in a heavily guarded Buddhist monastery.
The city is relatively remote – more than 400 miles north of the country’s city Yangon (Rangoon) – but the brutality and destruction in this city of 130,000 demonstrates just how quickly anti-Muslim violence is spreading throughout Burma.
As tensions build nationwide, an increasing number of Muslims in Burma are trying to get out – some are leaving for neighbouring countries on foot, others via rickety craft on the open sea. Activists think more than 20,000 Rohingya Muslims may have fled violence-wracked Rakhine state in north-west Burma.
This desperate exodus has serious implications for Burma’s neighbours – with Thailand in particular now struggling to cope with the influx. Six months ago, the Thai authorities said they would find a place for Rohingya Muslims in Thai detention centres and shelters. A few months later, however, the head of Thailand’s immigration authority, Pharnu Kerdlapphon, informed the media that they had run out of space. “The number of Rohingya entering this country is worrying,” he said.
We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.
You can see what happened next in our exclusive report but here’s a quick summary. We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.
My cameraman Matt Jasper and I captured some images of the conditions at Phang Nga – but our pictures do not adequately depict the reality of their squalid existence. This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.
The anxiety and uncertainty experienced by these men is probably a bigger problem than the physical hardships. No-one we spoke to wanted to go back to Burma – but they have no idea what the Thai government is planning to do with them. Back in January, officials said detainees could stay for six months while they sought “another country” to take them – but that period is almost up.
A member of the provincial assembly, Vasit Prayadsap, told me the situation was unacceptable. “I am really concerned,” he said, “because the government still doesn’t know what to do.” At the local level, lock-ups like the one at Phang Nga are clearly not resourced properly. On the day of our visit, Muslim volunteers told us the head of the immigration centre had pleaded with them for donations of cash, clothing and cleaning equipment.
We asked the top government official in the area – the governor of Phang Nga – for an interview. We also sought one from the Thai government – but they both declined. The Thai foreign ministry did provide us with a statement:
“The Thai authorities … are aware of the overcrowding issue at the existing immigration facilities…. alternative arrangements are being identified, and this is a matter of priority. It is hoped that those arrangements will enable the authorities concerned in better addressing the crowdedness issue.”
Still, the head of Thailand’s parliamentary border affairs committee, Samat Malulim, told me the government still had “no concrete plans” for the resettlement of Rohingya. He’s not happy with the current situation either. “The conditions you have seen would even be difficult for animals,” he said.
The foreign ministry points out conditions at other detention centres in Thailand are better than those at Phang Nga and there certainly seems to be some truth to that. We found a women and children’s unit up the coast with outdoor space and adequate supplies of food and medicine.
The living quarters were still crowded, however, and many of the women were depressed – the same air of uncertainty hung over the place. The occupants hadn’t heard from their husbands in months despite the fact that many of them had sailed to Thailand together.
At best, the Thai government’s efforts have been scattered and ad-hoc – but this difficult problem will only get worse if the fighting and the bloodshed in Burma continues.
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Rohingya people crammed in filthy cages in Thailand
Burma's Buddhist mobs sow fear amid widening unrest
Muslims attacked and mosque torched as Thein Sein's government fails to intervene
Associated Press in Lashio
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 May 2013 04.23 BST
It was a terrifying sight: hundreds of angry, armed men on motorcycles advancing up a dusty street with no one to stop them. Shouting at the top of their lungs, clutching machetes, iron pipes and long bamboo poles, they thrust their fists repeatedly into the air.
The object of their rage: Burma's embattled Muslims.
Gaping residents backed away as the Buddhist mob passed. Worried business owners turned away customers and retreated indoors. And three armed soldiers standing in green fatigues on a corner watched quietly, doing nothing despite an emergency government ordinance banning groups of more than five from gathering.
Within a few hours on Wednesday, at least one person was dead and four injured as the north-east region of Burma became the latest to fall prey to the country's swelling tide of anti-Muslim unrest.
Two days of violence in the city of Lashio have cast fresh doubt over whether President Thein Sein's government can or will act to contain the racial and religious intolerance plaguing a nation still struggling to emerge from half a century of military rule.
Muslims have been the main victims since the violence began in western Rakhine state last year, but so far most criminal trials have involved prosecutions of Muslims, not members of the Buddhist majority.
The rioting in Lashio started on Tuesday after reports that a Muslim man had splashed petrol on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. He was arrested. The woman was taken to hospital with burns on her chest, back and hands.
Mobs took revenge by burning down several Muslim shops and one of the city's main mosques, along with an Islamic orphanage that was so badly charred that only two walls remained, said Min Thein, a resident contacted by telephone.
On Wednesday fires still smouldered at the ruined mosque, where a dozen charred motorcycles lay on the pavement underneath its white minarets. Troops stood guard. The wind carried the acrid smell of several burned vehicles across town, and most Muslims hid in their homes.
When one group of thugs arrived at a Muslim-owned cinema housed in a sprawling villa, they hurled rocks over the gate, smashing windows. They then broke inside and ransacked the building.
Ma Wal, a 48-year-old Buddhist shopkeeper across the street, said she saw the crowd arrive. They had knives and stones, and came in two separate waves.
"I couldn't look," she said, recounting how she had shut the wooden doors of her shop. "We were terrified."
A couple of hours later, the mobs were gone and two army trucks and a small contingent of soldiers guarded the villa.
"I don't know what to think about it," she said. "More casualties are ... not good for anybody."
The government, which came to power in 2011 promising a new era of democratic rule, appealed for calm.
"Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create," presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. "Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law," he said.
National police said nine people were arrested for involvement in the two days of violence, but did not say if they were Buddhists or Muslims.
After nightfall, authorities could be heard issuing instructions on loudspeakers across the city, reminding residents a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect. The voice bellowing into the night said: "You are prohibited from carrying sticks or swords or any kind of weapon."
A local freelance journalist, Khun Zaw Oo, said he was hit on the head with an iron pipe as he photographed mobs ransacking shops. He said he managed to flee but a companion also holding a camera was attacked and badly injured.
Hundreds of people died in Rakhine state last year when clashes between Buddhists and Muslims drove about 140,000 residents, mostly Muslims, from their homes. Most are still living in refugee camps.
This month, authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Muslim families to two children. The policy drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
On Tuesday a US state department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said the US opposed coercive policies limiting births, and called on Burma "to eliminate all such policies without delay".
The clashes had seemed confined to the Rakhine region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Burma, killing at least 43 people. Earlier this month, a court sentenced seven Muslims from Meikthila to prison terms for their role in the violence.
Several other towns in central Burma experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
Muslims account for about 4% of Burma's roughly 60 million people. Anti-Muslim sentiment is closely tied to nationalism and the dominant Buddhist religion, so leaders have been reluctant to speak up.
Thein Sein's administration has been heavily criticised for not doing enough to protect Muslims. He vowed last week during a trip to the US that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice.
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Killing with kindness: Burma's religious battleground - and the monks at the heart of it
Six years ago, the world cheered the monks behind Burma’s Saffron Revolution. Now, a horrific new eruption of religious slaughter is being blamed on a ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’. So what happened to the mantra of non-violence?
PETER POPHAM SUNDAY 26 MAY 2013
Burmese Muslims given two-child limit
Rakhine state officials say limit on children will help ease tensions with Buddhists, whose population is growing at slower rate
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 May 2013 11.32 BST
Muslims in a province of Burma have been ordered not to have more than two children in an attempt by the government to stop Buddhist attacks on Muslims.
State officials said the two-child limit in the state of Rakhine would ease tensions between Buddhists and their Muslim Rohingya neighbours.
Local officials said the new measure was part of a policy that will also ban polygamyin two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations. The townships, Buthidaung and Maundaw, are about 95% Muslim.
The measure was enacted a week ago after a government-appointed commission investigating the violence issued proposals to ease tensions, which included family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims, said Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing. The commission also recommended doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region.
"The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine (Buddhists)," Win Myaing said. "Overpopulation is one of the causes of tension."
Sectarian violence in Burma first flared nearly a year ago in Rakhine state between the region's Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing 125,000 to flee, mostly Muslims.
Since the violence, religious unrest has developed into a campaign against the country's Muslim communities in other regions.
Containing the strife has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalisation after nearly half a century of harsh military rule. It has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised for failing to speak out strongly in defence of the country's embattled Muslim community.
Win Myaing said authorities had not yet determined how the measures will be enforced, but the two-child policy will be mandatory in Buthidaung and Maundaw. The policy will not apply yet to other parts of Rakhine state, which have smaller Muslim populations.
"One factor that has fuelled tensions between the Rakhine public and [Rohingya] populations relates to the sense of insecurity among many Rakhines stemming from the rapid population growth of the [Rohingya], which they view as a serious threat," the government-appointed commission said in a report issued last month.
Predominantly Buddhist Burma does not include the Rohingya as one of its 135 recognised ethnicities. It considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognised as citizens. Muslims account for about 4% of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
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Evacuation of 140,000 from camps vulnerable to flooding at risk as members of minority ethnic group refuse to move
Associated Press in Sittwe
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 May 2013 10.31 BST
Rescue operation after Myanmar boats sink
Vessels with scores of Rohingya Muslims evacuating camps ahead of storm sink, leaving many dead, say UN officials.
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Myanmar's Muslims fret about mistreatment
Those living in Yangon, the country's largest city, are worried that they may become targets of attacks by Buddhists.
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Myanmar Muslims living in constant fear
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Myanmar faces call for religious segregation
Buddhist leaders in Rakhine state say integration with minority Muslim Rohingyas is unacceptable.
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Myanmar Rohingya violence report assailed
Human rights groups say focus on security, rather than discrimination skews results of long-awaited government report.
Carey L Biron Last Modified: 02 May 2013 11:02
Buddhist violence against Muslims in Myanmar 'wrong': Dalai Lama
London, Apr 24 (IANS): Amid damning reports showing official Myanmar complicity in ethnically cleansing entire Muslim towns and villages, the world's foremost Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, has condemned the violence that has left hundreds dead and an estimated hundreds of thousands homeless.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, he told Cathy Newman that violence "is wrong". When he was asked whether he could do something about the attacks in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, he said: "In a student-teacher relationship, whether it is supreme teachers like Jesus or the Buddha, no one can control the thoughts of all humans."
"My friend, a scientist in Argentina, had said to a physicist at a meeting many years ago that she should not develop an attachment to her scientist field. That means I am Buddhist but I should not develop an attachment to my faith because then my attitude will become biased. And you cannot see the truth with a biased mind," he added.
Sometimes, many conflicts are fought in the name of religion but in reality they may actually be due to political or economical differences, he said, adding: "Fundamentalists always think of themselves and not the values of others, which is wrong."
Commenting on Nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu, dubbed the "Buddhist bin Laden" and accused of flaring social tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Dalai Lama said he had not studied his case in detail or in isolation but that he condemned his actions. "What he is doing is wrong," he said.
Previously, during an interview with ABC News from his home-in-exile in Dharamsala in India, he had represented his most public condemnation of the Buddhist-led violence.
"It's very sad," the Dalai Lama said.
"All the major religions teach us the practice of love, compassion and forgiveness. So a genuine practitioner among these different religious traditions would not indulge in such violence and bullying of other people."
Asked for his opinion on US senators voting against gun control as part of an individual's freedom, the Dalai Lama said he understood individual freedom, "but that does not mean you carry out an act out of destructive emotion. The control must come from the individuals," he said.
He also discussed his hopes for progress with China and whether a woman could be the Tibetan people's next spiritual leader. He said he is optimistic about progress with China and hopes that in a few years they can share a harmonious relationship based on "friendship and trust".
He said he would be happy to have a woman Dalai Lama succeed him. "Women are naturally more sympathetic and compassionate people. So, yes, I would definitely welcome it," he told Channel 4.
It's unclear how much weight the Dalai Lama's words will carry in violence-stricken areas of Myanmar, where a new report accuses Buddhist monks, political party operatives, and ordinary Myanmar residents of committing brutal acts of violence against the country's tiny Rohingya minority.
The report, issued by Human Rights Watch, shows a pre-planned pattern of violence in the Southeast Asian country, including entire villages razed to the ground and the bodies of men, women and children buried in mass graves, some with their hands bound behind their backs. In another village, 70 people, including 28 children, were allegedly hacked to death.
The violence began last year with a number of small skirmishes between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar. It has since then spread and nearly all the violence has been directed toward Myanmar's minority Rohingya Muslims. They are a small ethnic group of three to five percent of Myanmar's total population.
The Myanmar government classifies the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi immigrants, denying them official citizenship. Burmese laws prevent them from travelling without permission and owning land.
Human Rights Watch accuse Myanmarese authorities of turning a blind eye, and in some cases participating in the violence. It accuses the government of "systematically restricting humanitarian aid" and "imposing discriminatory policies" on its Muslim minority, warning of a humanitarian crisis if the violence isn't brought to an end.
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Anti-Muslim violence hits central Myanmar
At least one person is dead and ten are injured after mobs of angry Buddhists burned hundreds of homes.
Last Modified: 01 May 2013 10:34
At least one person has died and 10 people have been injured in central Myanmar after Buddhist gangs set fire to hundreds of homes and overrun two mosques.
Tuesday's flare-up in Okkan, 110km north of Yangon, is the latest anti-Muslim violence to shake the Southeast Asian nation since late March.
In Chauk Tal, an outlying village, leaping flames still rose on Tuesday night from the remains of several fiercely burning structures, while distressed villagers cried and hurled buckets of water to try and douse the flames.
Residents said as many as 400 Buddhists armed with bricks and sticks rampaged through the area.
"We hadn't really seen [violence] in this central part," said Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler, reporting from Bangkok. "[The violence] is definitely spreading; in this latest incident troops and security forces had to come in to prevent any more violence. You can view what's going on in Myanmar as a tinderbox."
Eighteen people are reported to have been arrested.
The mobs targeted Muslim shops and ransacked two mosques; about 20 riot police were later deployed to guard one of them, a single-story structure, which had its doors broken and windows smashed.
In Okkan, two mosques were overrun and looted, while more than 100 Muslim homes in three nearby villages were torched in arson attacks.
"They came around 1pm and most of the people were from this town, not from outside. There were around 50 of them," said Khin Maung Than, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in Okkan.
Local police said hundreds of people participated in the attacks.
Stopping the spread of sectarian violence has proven a major challenge for Thein Sein's reformist government since it erupted in western Rakhine state last year.
Human rights groups have recently accused the president's administration of failing to crack down on Buddhist anger.
Last week, Human Rights Watch issued the most comprehensive and detailed account yet of the violence in Rakhine state.
The report accused authorities, including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces, of fomenting an organised campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya.
About 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, remain displaced with large swathes of the state effectively segregated along sectarian lines.
Muslims account for about four percent of the nation's roughly 60 million people.
About one-third of the nation's population consists of ethnic minority groups. Some have waged wars against the government for autonomy.
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Buddhist monk uses racism and rumours to spread hatred in Burma
Thousands watch YouTube videos of 45-year-old 'Burmese Bin Laden' who preaches against country's Muslim minority
Kate Hodal in Bangkok
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 18 April 2013 12.08 BST
'They stood shouting at us to come out and be killed': Anti-Muslim violence in central Burma has left thousands of people homeless
PETER POPHAM MEIKTILA TUESDAY 09 APRIL 2013
In a wilderness of scorched rubble and twisted corrugated iron, a woman with wilted jasmine flowers in her hair was trying to locate what was left of her life. Ma Khin Aye lost her home and all her possessions when an anti-Muslim mob – including Buddhist neighbours with whom she had been friendly for years – set fire to it, along with all the others in the block in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. Armed with sticks and iron bars they then stood in the street, threatening to murder the terrified residents as they fled.
Ma Khin Aye, 48, escaped the flames with her aged mother, who was almost comatose with shock. She braved the mob, got her mother on to the back of a scooter and took her to hospital. A week later, she came back to the ruins, rooting through the rubble to see if anything could be salvaged. While she did so, youths were looting the neighbourhood. They took anything of value that remained . Meiktila had been under army lockdown for a week, but neither the soldiers nor the police were there to stop them.
“I have no enemies. I have been living here for a long time,” Ma Khin Aye, who is unmarried and sells toys in a local market, told The Independent. “Our communities have always been friendly: nothing like this has ever happened. At Thingyan [Burmese New Year] they would invite us into their homes; we would invite them into ours for Eid.” Who started the attacks? “Some of them were strangers – but when they wanted to find the homes of the kalar [Muslims], it was local people who brought them here. They stood there with sticks, shouting, ‘Come out, kalar, and we will kill you…’”
Two years after Burma began its trek towards democracy, and one year after the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election triumph, the anti-Muslim violence took at least 43 lives when it broke out in Meiktila last month, and has left thousands homeless. Beginning on 20 March, it raged for days and was quelled only when President Thein Sein declared an emergency, sending in the army. About 42 people have been arrested.
Unlike the anti-Muslim eruptions last year in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, where hostility has been simmering for decades, the Meiktila attacks came out of nowhere. When the army stamped them out, Muslim communities in 15 towns and villages to the south of the city came under attack, with mosques and homes knocked down. Then, last week, the flames arrived in Rangoon: 15 children and youths died from smoke inhalation when their madrassa caught fire on Monday evening. The government was quick to say it was an accident, blaming an overheating transformer. The Independent spoke to several Muslims who claimed it was a deliberate attack, pointing to evidence of petrol burns inside the building.
The following night another fire almost broke out. Five men were apprehended carrying petrol cans into a mosque near the city centre.
It is just two years since Thein Sein, a former general, became Burma’s first civilian president after decades of military rule and began rushing through reforms. The progress since then has been exhilarating, but the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has suddenly thrown all that into question.
Some believe the riots are due to the sudden release from 50 years of authoritarian rule: destructive urges held in check all these years are being given vent. Tensions have been heightened since hundreds were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless during clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma last year. But as Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the Irrawaddy news website points out, religious riots also occurred under military rule.
“In past decades, many Burmese people believed rulers of the Socialist and military regimes used religious tension as a political weapon to distract the public from anti-government movements,” he wrote.
A movement known as 969, urging Buddhists to shun Muslim shops and businesses, has gained momentum in recent months. The monk who heads the movement, known as Wirathu, was jailed in 2003 for inciting violence in Mandalay state, but denies blame on this occasion. “We’ve just become scapegoats … Within our circle, 969 is not violent,” he said.
Although Thein Sein was handpicked for the role of President by Senior General Than Shwe, the speed of his reforms is said to have left some of his old army colleagues aghast. By-elections a year ago brought Ms Suu Kyi and more than 40 of her National League for Democracy colleagues into parliament. The old soldiers who run Thein Sein’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, fear that the NLD will win the next election, due in 2015, with a landslide. During the Meiktila violence, Thein Sein said the efforts of “political opportunists and religious extremists” trying to sow hatred between faiths would “not be tolerated”.
“We must rise above 60 years of bitterness,” he said. But the level of devastation in Meiktila has caused many to question Thein Sein’s ability to protect victims such as Ma Khin Aye.
A history of violence: Religious tensions
1962 Former military commander and Prime Minister Ne Win seizes power in a coup. Laws against Muslims are introduced in the decades of military rule that follow, fuelling animosity.
1997 Monks lead violence against Muslims in the Mandalay region, burning homes and religious sites.
2002 Amid growing turmoil, a Human Rights Watch report states: “The government has failed to take effective action to protect Muslims in Burma… and taken no action to punish those responsible for destroying Muslim homes and mosques.”
2003 Wirathu, a leading figure of the extremist Buddhist movement 969, is jailed.
2012 More than a year after a civilian government is installed, violence leaves more than 180 Rohingya Muslims dead and over 100,000 homeless.
2013 Buddhist-Muslim riots erupt in Meiktila, killing more than 40 with over 13,000 left homeless.
Children bear brunt of Myanmar conflict
Children and the elderly left to fend for themselves in refugee camps as war in Kachin state grinds on.
Last Modified: 06 Apr 2013 16:49
In northern Myanmar’s refugee camps, children are often left alone to fend for themselves.
Some parents have to leave to find work, leaving their children behind. Other parents have been killed in a long-running civil war which continues to take a heavy toll on Kachin state.
There are many problems facing the most vulnerable in the camps, including children and the elderly.
In a site on the Chinese border, the water supply is becoming toxic because it runs through a large sugar-cane plantation where pesticides are regularly used. Children have been developing rashes and diarrhoea.
Al Jazeera's Wayne Hay reports from neighbouring Bangkok, Thailand.
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Last Modified: 02 Apr 2013 13:34
Buddhism turns violent in Myanmar
Apr 2, '13
By Matthew J Walton
Recent violence in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims in the central town of Meikhtila (also spelt Meiktila) and areas beyond, which has left a reported 43 people dead, as many as 12,000 displaced, and more than 1,000 homes and building destroyed, has raised concerns over the stability of the country's current democratic transition and the imposition of martial law in the troubled area has raised the specter of a return to direct military rule.
The communal riots of the past year in Myanmar's western Rakhine State between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas have now expanded into a broader Buddhist versus Muslim framing that has spread dangerously across the country.
Buddhist campaigns against Muslims, such as the increasingly visible Buddhist nationalist ''969'' movement, seem to have inflamed tensions in Meikhtila and prompted outside observers to worry about the role of monks in encouraging discrimination and even violence against Myanmar's minority Muslim population.  While Buddhist nationalism has long had the potential to be turned against non-Buddhist groups, Buddhism's influence on politics and public opinion requires careful analysis in Myanmar's contemporary context.
The Buddhist-Muslim conflict embodies a broader threat to democratic consolidation in Myanmar that reflects a common theme in Theravada Buddhist history, yet also represents only one potential interpretation of Buddhist principles. Violence and discrimination against Muslims is currently framed by some Buddhist groups as a necessary response to the imminent threat of Islam's expansion into the Buddhist community; in a situation like this, some Buddhists have argued that any actions can be justified in order to protect the religion.
A compelling counter-argument, however, is rooted in Buddhist values and doctrine that prioritizes the democratic values of inclusion and tolerance as a better strategy for the long-term protection of Myanmar's Buddhist community. The Pali word savanna refers not just to the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and lay people, but to the very existence of the Buddha's teachings. For Theravada Buddhists, this includes the texts of the Pali canon as well as the vast commentarial literature. The lived knowledge of those teachings among Buddhists is critically important, for without all of this enlightenment would be impossible.
Religious and political figures throughout Buddhist history have justified many violent, exclusionary acts by claiming to be acting "in defense of the savanna''. One of the earliest accounts is of the Sinhalese king Dutthagamani who defeated a Tamil king in approximately the first century BCE, declaring that his purpose was not to win territory but to protect the sasana. Monks even allegedly disrobed in order to join his army and fight.
When Dutthagamani experienced remorse at the bloodshed he had caused, his monastic advisers assured him that there was no need to worry. Only one and a half "people" had died at the hands of his army, one who had taken the Five Precepts (and who could be considered Buddhist, and therefore, human) and one who had taken a lesser vow. The rest were all non-Buddhists, less than human and not even deserving of consideration, let alone pity, according to the advisers.
Religious and political leaders have also employed "defense of the sasana" arguments in contemporary democratic contexts in order to justify bloody, anti-democratic policies, particularly violence against non-Buddhist religious groups perceived as a threat to Buddhism. In contemporary Sri Lanka, some nationalist monks exhorted the Buddhist-led government to press the prosecution of the war against the Tamil resistance (won in brutal fashion by the government in 2009) using imagery that invoked the legacy of Dutthagamani.
They were following in the footsteps of the controversial Sinhalese monk Walpola Rahula, who, in legitimizing monastic participation in politics in the 1970s, also commented approvingly of the belief of Dutthagamani's monastic advisors that "the destruction of human beings [for the purpose of protecting the religion] was not a very grave crime''.
Some modern conflicts between Buddhists and non-Buddhists have not been explicitly framed by the rhetoric of defending the sasana, but the connection is still apparent. For example, national political leaders in Thailand have stressed that the ongoing conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in several southern provinces is simply evidence of lawlessness and banditry, or foreign influence. Yet the state has encouraged the formation of Buddhist citizen protection groups in response to the crisis (something that is also rumored to be happening now in Myanmar).
More importantly, the "protection of the sasana" argument no longer needs to be explicit in cases like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, where the identity of the Buddhist majority has effectively merged with the national identity. Calls to "defend the motherland" in these countries might appear to be simply nationalistic, yet the long-standing connection in Buddhist political thought between the integrity and strength of the state and the health of the religion suggests that many people view these conflicts through a religious lens.
The recent march of thousands of Buddhist monks in anti-Muslim protests across Myanmar makes it clear that they see the purification of the state and the protection of the sasana as coterminous processes. The 969 movement has launched a sort of "Buy Buddhist" campaign, urging Myanmar's Buddhists to strengthen the sasana against the imagined threat of expansionist Islam by patronizing only Buddhist businesses; its logic suggests that the only way to protect Buddhism is to drive Islam completely out of the country by economically punishing local Muslim populations until they are forced to leave.
The Myanmar monk U Wirathu allegedly recently billed himself as the "Burmese Bin Laden'', saying he would use any means necessary to defend his religion and nation. He is a complex figure, having helped to organize recent citizen protests against police violence but also traveling the country giving sermons in which he demonizes Muslims and urges Buddhists to join the 969 boycott campaign.
While supporters of the 969 movement have billed it as a peaceful campaign to promote Buddhism, there are reports that "969" has been spray-painted on the walls of recently destroyed mosques in other cities in Myanmar, suggesting that at least some in the movement have adopted a more vindictive and retaliatory "defense" of Buddhism.
Powerful political tool
It is critical for scholars and policymakers analyzing recent events to recognize the persuasive force of religious reasons given in defense of discriminatory or exclusionary policies. This is a particular threat to continued reform in countries where democratic practices and values have not yet been consolidated, as is currently the case in Myanmar. At the moment in which the Buddhist sasana is threatened, democracy reverts to theocracy.
The argument for the defense of the sasana is so compelling and difficult to refute (what Buddhist wants to be accused of not defending the religion?) that it remains a powerful political tool. The recent conflicts in Myanmar likely have more localized and personalized causes, as people struggle to maintain stability in a transitional context of economic, political, and social uncertainty. However, the broader religious context allows Buddhists to portray Islam and the Muslim community as a threat to the sasana, despite the absence of evidence to support this claim.
The sasana is central to Buddhist belief and practice, and it would be unreasonable to expect any Buddhist to prioritize a set of worldly political institutions and practices over the Buddha's teachings. A different response, however, would be to argue that a commitment to democratic principles need not be in opposition to defense of the sasana.
This type of argument has not yet been developed or advanced by Buddhist groups, although an increasing number of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have criticized the violent and exclusionary actions allegedly in defense of the sasana as antithetical to core Buddhist values.
One of the more compelling criticisms against the violence is that Buddhist discrimination against Muslim Rohingya or any other Muslim group is antithetical to the core Buddhist values of metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion). These are two of the four qualities that are among the most noble and sublime attributes that a Buddhist can cultivate.
A key aspect of both metta and karuna is the non-discriminating quality of these characteristics. That is, the ideal of Buddhist practice is to cultivate the same feelings of loving-kindness and compassion toward every living being, including one's enemies. Some explanations of metta and karuna mark these end cases, where the practice of compassion and loving-kindness is the most difficult, as the key moments of personal moral development where one overcomes prejudice and partiality.
The Myanmar Buddhist monks who marched against the previous military regime in 2007 chanted the metta sutta, a prayer of protection that texts relate the Buddha taught to some monks who wanted to meditate in a forest but were fearful of being attacked by wild animals. This prayer invokes a wish that all beings might be free from suffering, a far cry from current reports in the country that suggest Buddhist monks are encouraging their followers to shun and even attack those (Buddhist and non-Buddhist) who do something as simple as patronize a Muslim-owned business.
The argument for protection of the sasana has always relied on an "end justifies the means" logic, in which the preservation of the Buddhist community as a whole allows Buddhists to act in ways, including the promotion of hatred, discrimination and exclusion, that contravene the basic moral teachings of the religion. The counter-argument, however, is that the best way to preserve the sasana in the present and future and strengthen the moral practice of the community is to act in accordance with the basic values of the Buddha's teachings in political, social and economic realms.
The dominant framing driving Buddhist anti-Muslim actions in Myanmar is one in which Muslims are posited as a threat to Buddhism, which appears to justify any number of anti-democratic, extra-legal, and violent actions. Not only does this "defense of the sasana" argument pose a threat to democratic consolidation in the country, it also fundamentally misreads the nature of threats to Buddhism in Myanmar.
Actions by Buddhists that contravene the basic values of the religion pose a much greater threat to the health of the sasana than the mere presence of other religions. In Myanmar's current case, Buddhism and Buddhists are not inherently xenophobic, racist, fascistic, or anything else that they been labeled, but they have in recent paroxysms acquiesced to an intolerant and ultimately self-destructive interpretation of their religious values.
It is the responsibility of Buddhists, and especially monks, whose exalted position in Myanmar society allows them to influence public opinion, to develop alternate interpretations of Buddhist doctrine that denounce violence and insist that adherence to democratic values is indeed the best way to strengthen and defend the Buddhist community in a time of transition.
1. In the ''969" referenced by the Buddhist movement, the first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Buddha; the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dhamma, or Buddhist teachings; and the last 9 for the nine special attributes of Buddhist monks, according to Irrawaddy magazine.
Matthew J Walton is an adjunct professor in political science at The George Washington University. This autumn, he will become the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. He can be reached at mjwalton@....
(Copyright 2013 Matthew J Walton)