Burma: the forgotten nightmare of the Rohingya Muslims
Antonella Vicini 22 April 2013

A new chapter in the violence against the Burmese Muslim community began at the end of March. Ten days of clashes broke out in Meiktila, in the centre of the country, triggered by an argument between a Muslim merchant and some clients. It was an apparently banal event that reignited the fuse and unleashed underlying tensions to the point that the violence spread as far as Rangoon. Forty-three people were killed, 1,300 buildings were set alight and 11,376 people were left homeless according to totals reported in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper. Recently, the torching of a madrassa claimed more victims in Botataung, the multi-ethnic quarter of the former capital. Thirteen students were killed in what the authorities said was an accident caused by a short circuit in the building, although many witnesses’ statements seemed to indicate otherwise.

The Rohingya minority

The World Factbook entry for Burma states that out of a population of 55 million, 4% are Muslim. It is a minority similar in size to the Christian minority, also 4%, followed by 1% animist and must be compared to an 89% Buddhist population. Incidents of violence are nothing new in a country where 130 different ethnic groups do not live in harmony. In the last few years, however, the fall of the military junta has unbalanced matters and advanced the democratization process, which demands greater freedom of information. The latest event in question dates back to last year and concerns the unhappy situation experienced by the Rohingya who practice Sunni Islam with Sufi elements and live mostly in the state of Rakhine. Faced with the number of deaths – at least 180 to which one must add 120,000 wounded – the international press did not hesitate to use the word pogrom, still used nowadays by the Times of India, speaking of the experiences of a Rohigya refugee.

“The Buddhists prevent Muslims from leaving their homes during the day. Those who refuse to follow these orders are killed,” reads an article published by the Indian-English language daily newspaper. Outlining a situation of isolation and alienation, Mohammed added in this article that “health care, education and all other services are a dream for us.”

According to the United Nations the Rohingya minority is one of the most discriminated against in the world. There are thought to be about 800,000 living in Burma with another million in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and above all in Bangladesh, where they are not tolerated and where in recent months a number of NGOs have been stopped from working locally. About 90% of the Muslim population in the state of Rahine lives at the border with Bangladesh and moving across the border seems inevitable with all the consequences this involves for the host nation.

According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya are subject to restrictions and human rights violations ranging from land confiscation to arbitrary taxation and deprivation of freedom, forced labour and denying them Burmese citizenship. This means that for many refugees it has become hard to hope to return to the land their families lived on for generations and there remains only the limbo between a Bangladesh that does not want them and Burma that does not acknowledge them. This destiny also shared by other minorities contributes to the current complex situation in Burma.

The origins and responsibilities of the monks

The presence of Muslims in Burma dates back to Persian and Arab influences. Tradesmen, settlers, soldiers or prisoners of war, officers of the king, doctors, slaves or refugees, it was during the migratory flow in India when it was a British protectorate that Muslims increased their presence in the country. This took place until the 1940s when the flow slowed down and then stopped.  Intolerance was accompanied by anti-Indian and anti-British feelings, but dates back to the 16th century when there was evidence of bans that directly affected Islamic traditions such as halal slaughtering of animals. It was after the coup d’état carried out by General Ne Win in 1962 that the conditions experienced by the Muslim minority deteriorated and they were removed from the armed forces and increasingly considered “foreigners” in Burma.

The two events that in recent years have marked the history of this religious group were the riots that broke out in Mandalay in 1997 and those in Tooungoo and Sittwe in 2001. In both cases mosques were attacked and monks played quite an active role against the Islamic minority. The same can be said of the events in March. On this occasion, however, there were conflicting versions and some, including Human Rights Watch, believed that among these monks there were agents provocateurs linked to the army which had every interest in increasing conflict at such an important moment for Burma’s political future. Divided among themselves, Burmese Muslims have never managed to react to this violence in an organised manner, while, on the other hand, after the fall of the military junta, a national Buddhist movement that encourages anti-Muslim hatred has gained power in Burma and is led by people such as the monk Shi Wirathu. In his blog Wirathu has posted messages inciting people to boycott shops run by Muslims and relies on fear of “Islamic totalitarianism.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons