Religious Persecution against Muslims in Myanmar
Dr. Mozammel Haque
The resurgence of religious persecution in Meikhtila was the first of its kind in Myanmar (Burma) since two similar bouts of bloodshed shook Western Rakhine state last year and its spread highlights the Government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country, where even monks have staged anti-Muslim rallies and called on their supports to drive out opponents with arms. Meikhtila is a trading town of 100,000 people at the centre of the country, with an army base and no history of sectarian violence. The town's Muslims of Indian descent, who make up 30 per cent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have no links to the stateless Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, they have a long and peaceful lineage here.
State media in Myanmar reported on 30 March 2013 that the death toll from communal violence in the centre of the country over the past 10 days has risen to 43, with more than 1,300 homes and buildings destroyed.
The recent clashes were apparently triggered by an argument in a gold shop that turned into an escalating riot. Swe Win wrote in The New York Times dated 29 March 2013: “The violence stemmed from a trivial row over a broken gold clip between a Muslim jeweller and a Buddhist customer last Wednesday (27 March) morning. The brawl happened in Meikhtila, a trading town of 100,000 people at the centre of the country, with an army base and no history of sectarian violence. The town's Muslims have no links to the stateless Rohingyas in Western Myanmar, they have a long and peaceful lineage here.”
“A Muslim man around 40-year-old had has legs tied to a motorcycle and was dragged on the road. Since he was still half alive after that torture, the crowd beat him up with sticks and then burned him on the motorcycle, Myo Htutt, an eyewitness, told me and he estimated that the death toll from the three days of violence reached around 200. State media put it at 40,” wrote Swe Win.
Myanmar's government is struggling to contain anti-Muslim violence that touched the outskirts of the capital. Myanmar's President Thein Sein vowed on Thursday, 28 March, a tough response to religious extremists after a wave of deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence in the former army-ruled nation. “I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated,” Thein Sein said in a national address.
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency, imposed Martial law in central Myanmar on Friday, 29 March and deployed army troops to the worst hit city, Meikhtila. Myanmar's army took control of a ruined central city next day, Saturday, imposing a tense calm after several days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.
Despite Myanmar government imposed Martial Law, declared State of Emergency and deployed many troops who were patrolling the streets, anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist heartland over the weekend. Terrified Muslims, who make up 30 per cent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the streets as their shops and homes burned and Buddhist mobs carrying matchets, hammers and knives tried to stop firefighters from dousing the flames.
Police, Security forces and Government
came under attack
It took the government three days to declare a state of emergency and send in the army. That did stop the violence in Meikhtila but since then attacks against Mosques and Muslims property have continued to spread across the country. More than a week after the violence started, just this Thursday President Thein Sein explained that government forces had been ordered not to intervene, wrote Swe Win.
Police, security forces and the government came under attack and were criticised in failing to carry out their duties. Police were criticised in the media and by local people for making little efforts to halt the violence as ethnic Burmese Buddhists including Monks stalked the streets armed with swords and knives.
Muslim leaders have criticised the security forces for failing to stop the attacks. “These violent attacks include crimes such as arson and massacres which deserve heavy penalties,” the Islamic Religious Affairs Council and several other Muslim groups in Myanmar wrote in an open letter to the President. In this situation, the authorities neglected to take swift and effective action against the perpetrators who recklessly committed crimes in front of them,” they added. The Islam Council, based in Yangon, has issued a statement saying the violence had been premeditated to create discord between Buddhists and Muslims.
The Quasi-civilian government has faced strong international pressure over the violence and unrest which, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has displaced more than 12,000 people. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned of 'a considerable risk of further violence' if measures are not put in place to prevent this escalation.” He said such action must also the root causes of the problem.
A senior UN Official said authorities needed to act “to prevent further loss of life or spread of violence,” in the Buddhist-majority nation. “Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace,” Vijay Nambiar, Special Advisor to the UN Ban Ki-Moon, said in a statement.
Even Myanmar parliamentarian acknowledged the situation is not good in Myanmar. “The situation is not good...although the government has said everything is under control,” parliamentarian Win Htien of the opposition National League for Democracy Party told AFP.
'State involvement' in violence: UN
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Human Rights said Thursday 28 March 2013 he had received reports of “state involvement” in some of the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the former army-ruled nation. “I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence,” Tomes Ojea Quintana said in a statement. He also pointed to 'instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their eyes, including by well-organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs'.
Earlier on Sunday, 24 March 2013, Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary General's Special Adviser on Myanmar toured Meikhtila and called on the government to punish these perpetrators responsible. He also visited some of the nearby 10,000 people driven from their homes in the unrest. Most of the displaced are minority Muslims, who appeared to have suffered the brunt of the violence as armed Buddhist mobs roamed city. He added: “It is important to catch the perpetrators. It is important that they be caught and punished.”
Nation-wide anti-Muslim sentiment
The upsurge in religious persecution is casting a shadow over Thein Sein's administration as it struggles to bring democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian country after half a century of army rule officially ended two years ago this month, in March. The emergence of sectarian conflict beyond Rakhine state is an ominous development, one that indicates anti-Muslim sentiment has intensified nationwide since last year, if left unchecked, could spread.
Analysts say racism has also played a role. Unlike the ethnic Burman majority, most Muslims in Myanmar are of South Asian descent, population with darker skin that migrated to Myanmar centuries ago from what are now parts of India and Bangladesh.
The latest bloodshed “shows that inter-communal tensions in Myanmar are not just limited to the Rakhine and Rohingya in northern Rakhine state,” said Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group. “Myanmar is a country with dozens of localized fault lines and grievances that were papered over during the authoritarian years that we are just beginning to see and understand. It is a paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allow these local conflicts to resurface.”
History of religious violence
Myanmar's Muslims – largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent – account for an estimated four per cent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted census in three decades. Religious violence has occasionally broken out in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions. Since violence erupted there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingyas including a growing number of women and children have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.
Occasional isolated religious violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred in the country for decades, even under the authoritarian military government that ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011. During the long era of authoritarian rule military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes had occurred elsewhere. But tensions have heightened since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the Western state of Rakhine last year that killed at least 180 people and more than 110,000 displaced.
OIC Meeting on Myanmar violence
“Such violence cannot continue. It is unacceptable and provides a clear indication of the negative approach the Myanmar government is adopting in addressing the ethnic tensions,” said Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Pan-Muslim organisation, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He pressed the government of Myanmar “to put an end to the Buddhist extremists and hate campaigns, as well as ethnic cleansing that they have launched against Muslims in the country.”
The Foreign Ministers of member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will meet on 14 April, 2013, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to discuss deadly violence against Muslims in Myanmar, announced OIC Secretary General Professor Ihsanoglu on Saturday.
Professor Ihsanoglu blamed the Myanmar government for being uncooperative with the international community's request to end the violence and come up with solutions. “We have knocked on every door to raise awareness and let the international community know about it. Last week, I addressed that issue at the Arab League Summit,” he said.
The OIC Secretary General said the Organization was “ready to take all necessary measures and actions” in dealing with the impending crisis. “The OIC intends to raise the issue in the Security Council and the Human Rights Council to find a solution that contributes to putting an end to religious persecution against Muslims in Myanmar. The OIC has previously tried to contact government officials in Myanmar to no avail. There has also been an Egyptian proposition to send a special delegation headed by the Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and includes a number of foreign ministers of member countries to Myanmar, but this visit has been postponed. The OIC attempted to open an office in Myanmar over the past year to supply aid to Muslims in Myanmar but extremist Buddhists demonstrated against this attempt,” an OIC official told Arab News, an English daily of Saudi Arabia.
“There’s no excuse for violence against innocent people, and the Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” President Barack Obama said last year while addressing students at Yangon University. Obama’s visit to Myanmar, the first by a serving US president, came after two major outbreaks of violence beginning in June 2012.
“Yes, the crux of the problem lies in denial of “dignity” or citizenship to Rohingyas. In fact, continued denial of citizenship for the Rohingya and discriminatory practices against them are two sides of the same coin, editorially commented by Saudi Gazette, Jeddah and added, “Far too long, the world community has behaved as though this is a Bangladesh problem because Rohingya are mostly of Bengali origin. Far too long, the UN has been indulgent toward the junta in Myanmar just as the government in Yangon has been turning a blind eye to the activities of Buddhist extremists.” (Ethnic Violence in Myanmar, editorial, Saudi Gazette, 01 April, 2013.)
“This has to stop. The UN has to do some plain speaking to Myanmar backed by credible threats if it continues to fail in its primary duty: Giving protection to the person and property of its most vulnerable sections of the people,” the editorial urged.