It is time for Burma’s pro-democracy movement to speak out against the targeted attacks on the Muslims in that country, says Bonojit Hussain.
“We have to ask ourselves whether we may have over-romanticised its battles against the junta as a broader quest to bring pure, universal human rights to Burma, when in fact we had little evidence of a wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance.” – Francis Wade (Thailand based Journalist and a keen observer of developments in Burma) in the context of Burmese pro-democracy movement within and outside of Burma.
Since the summer of 2012 Burma has seen pogroms, massacres, riots of unprecedented scale against religious minorities, the latest being on the 30th April. A few hundreds have been killed and a few hundred thousands have been rendered homeless.
Much has been talked about how it is a ploy by the hardliners in the army and the post-reform government to stall further reforms. It might be true to a large extend, but the silence of the pro-democracy opposition is intriguing. While many from the “pro-democracy” camp has remained either silent or ambivalent; many others have shown that they actually belong to the ranks of fundamentalist who, in the pretext of unfounded “sense of self-victimisation,” are fomenting a near genocidal situation in the country.
The non-sectarian democratic forces within Burma would do a service to the country and to the world, if they can use their hard-earned moral authority to put a stop to the riots from turning into a full blown genocide. It is high time that all of us understand and recognise religious fundamentalism as a social reaction with fascist potentials and it must be unequivocally opposed and confronted.
Everyday incidents turn into riots
On 30 April, in a small town called Okkan, 100 kms away from Rangoon, a Muslim woman on a bicycle bumped into an 11 year old Buddhist monk who dropped his alms- bowl, damaging it. Soon a Buddhist mob gathered and went on a rampage killing at least one person and destroying several mosques and torching Muslim owned poultry farms and houses.
The authorities later detained 18 people allegedly involved in the riot, including the woman who was involved in the accident with the young monk, accusing her of deliberate and malicious acts that insult religion. Rangoon’s Deputy Police Commissioner, Thet Lwin, while admitting that she had bumped on to monk by accident, told Reuters that “According to our practices, we need to send her for trial since she was involved in the root cause of the incident” and that it was up to court to decide her fate.
Since this latest incident of anti-Muslim riots, it has been reported that Muslim villages have erected bamboo fences around their villages and armed themselves with clubs and swords to protect themselves from possible attacks from the neighbouring Buddhist villages.
On 20 March, a Buddhist woman got into an altercation with the Muslim owner of a gold shop over the price of a gold hairpin in Meikhtila town of Mandalay Division. According to reports, during the altercation, the Buddhist woman was slapped by the shop owner and her husband thrashed by the staff working in the shop. Soon a mob gathered and started attacking Muslim-owned businesses nearly destroying most of them. That very evening four Muslim youth killed a Buddhist monk in an alleged act of revenge.
From the late evening of 20 March, much of the Muslim dominated wards of the town were engulfed in flames. In the following five days, a Buddhist mob led systematic pogrom against Muslims which spread to 15 other smaller towns resulting in numerous charred bodies, buildings and mosques. According to official report at least 43 people were killed and several hundreds injured. 13,000 people, in Meikhtila alone, have been forced into refugee camps guarded by para-military troopers.
This round of anti-Muslim riots in March and April are a bloody reprise of last year’s massacre of Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in the western State of Rakhine where, according to official estimates, 110 people were killed and 125,000 people were forced to flee to refugee camps.
In the last week of April, the BBC released a video footage of Meikhtila riots in Central Burma where Buddhist monks in saffron robe can be seen leading the murderous mob while police stood by as onlookers. Various reports have also appeared that hints at State complicity, if not direct involvement, in the recent rounds of anti-Muslim riots.
In a report released on 22nd April, Human Rights Watch alleged that the security forces not only collaborated with Buddhist monks but also actively took part in killing Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Rakhine State last summer. Further, the report pointed out that the massacre was well planned. And even before it started, for months the:
“… Political parties, monks’ associations, and community groups issued numerous anti-Rohingya pamphlets and public statements. Most of the public statements and pamphlets explicitly or implicitly deny the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity, demonise them, and call for their removal from the country, even sometimes using the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” The statements frequently were released in connection with organized meetings and in full view of local, state, and national authorities who raised no concerns.”
The government has denied that security forces indulged in killing Rohingyas and Kamans in Rakhine in 2012, it has also denied that security forces stood by while people were being butchered and buildings were be torched in the Meikhtila riots. Official communiqué has claimed that security forces were overpowered by mobs in terms of their sheer numbers. As has been question by various close observers, these claims defy logic that a security apparatus that has so ‘efficiently’ and brutally suppressed various widespread uprisings during the 40-year military dictatorship, suddenly lost their nerve to be able to control riots. Even though several dozens people have been arrested for the Central Burma anti-Muslims riots of March and April, they have failed to convict the perpetrators, citing lack of evidence – except for three Muslims.
If the State machinery had the will they could have brought the violence under control without much loss of live and material. In fact senior army officers and government officials have been quoted on various occasions since last year expressing unfounded fears that Muslims would force their religion on Buddhists and try to “steal” Buddhist women.
In reference to Rakhine, a senior minister is believed to have said that if “they” are not deterred, the western gate will break (an obvious reference to the border with Bangladesh), and that human rights don’t apply to Muslims. In an infamous episode, drawing comparison between the “dark brown” complexions of the Rohingyas with the “fair and soft” skin colour of the majority of Burmese population, the Burmese Consul General in Hong Kong, U Ye Myint Aung, wrote a letter to local newspapers and other Diplomatic Missions in which he described Rohingyas as “ugly as Ogres”.
Many liberal commentators from among the Burmese Diaspora have located the roots of the anti-Muslim riots in the challenges that the ruling elite face in the post-reform era. A US-based Burmese political scientist argues that “supporting anti-Muslim extremism could help encourage a multi-ethnic conservative alliance among Buddhists and establishment forces. The state media’s embrace of anti-Rohingya propaganda bolsters this idea, and has helped the violence to spread beyond its origin in Rakhine state”.
He elucidates, that in post-reform era where the army has lost some of its power, it faces a big challenge of re-consolidating by integrating former insurgent fighters from the Chin, Karen, Mon and Shan minorities into the forces, all of whom are mostly Buddhist but hold bitter grievances towards the country’s majority ethnic Burmans.
Similarly, he opines, Burma’s top politicians (with ties to the older dictatorial regime) need to assemble a ruling coalition in the Parliament. But “unfortunately” for them, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD has stronghold in the Burman dominated area. So, creating a common Buddhist enemy, ie; the Muslims, is in the interest of both the army and the politicians (ex-military officers).
These explanations stand some ground, but remain unconvincing on many accounts. It doesn’t take into cognisance the fact that the history of post colonial Burma coincides with the history of the systematic persecution of Muslims. It fails to even mention the indirect and direct role played by various Buddhist monastic associations in the riots. And it absolves Aung San Suu Kyi, other pro-democracy activists and rights activists in Burma of any ethical responsibility.
A history of anti-Muslim riots
The history of anti-Muslim riots in modern Burma goes back to the colonial period, when, out of economic resentment, anti-Muslim (and largely anti-Indian) riots broke out in Rangoon in 1930 and 1938.
However, it was after the coup of 1962 that State-sponsored persecution of Muslims started. General Ne Win and the military junta that replaced him played the religious ultra-nationalist and racist card to manipulate the masses for the entirety of the dictatorial regime. Muslims and other non-Buddhists were barred from the upper echelons of the army and, almost immediately after Ne Win’s coup, he expelled hundreds of thousands of Indians from the country. He also fostered a sense of a Burmese identity strongly linked to Buddhism, which has been the breeding ground for waves of anti-Muslim violence.
The military regime in Burma, since the early days of General Ne Win, has used xenophobic violence as a tool to bolster its own interests and legitimacy, apart from the 1967 anti-Chinese, it has mostly been anti-religious minority in character.
In 1978 Operation Dragon King was launched which resulted in more than 200,000 Rohingyas crossing over to Bangladesh as refugees; in 1982 Rohingyas were disenfranchised under the amended Citizenship Law.
In 1997, the regime, allegedly, used rising anti-Muslim sentiments and incited riots to deflect criticisms of the regime’s pro-China policy (and “State complicit” influx of Chinese nationals into upper Burma).
In 2001, the regime’s own mass front Union Solidarity and Mass Association was accused of inciting anti-Muslim riots in Taungoo.
Worsening situation in post-reform era
However, the authoritarian regime in Burma, was also capable of preventing and controlling riots if it was not necessary for its own advantage. A case in point is the 2003 riots which was brought under control rather swiftly, and U Wirathu (by now an infamous hate spitting Buddhist abbot) was sentenced for 25 years and put behind bars for inciting anti-Muslim riots. (He was released in 2010 in the general amnesty that was granted to prisoners.)
Even though the recent anti-Muslim riots, as has been pointed out by liberal Burmese commentators, indicate a post-reform power struggle within the ruling elite – the hard-line and moderate forces in the Government, nobody has been able to convincingly establish that the riots were directly orchestrated by the government.
However, what is clear is that the recent riots started at a convenient time for the government. After the reforms undertaken by “reformist” President Thein Sein, public protests and strike action at factories have increased many fold. Under Myanmar’s previous military regime, public gatherings were forbidden, unions were outlawed and protesters were imprisoned.
In late 2012, Letpadaung region saw an eruption of massive protest against a controversial expansion of a copper mining project. More than 3,100 hectares of land had been confiscated to make way for the US1bn expansion of the copper mine run by Myanmar Wanbao Mining, a joint venture between the Myanmar military and a subsidiary of a weapons manufacturer, China North Industries (Norinco).
In November, 2012, security forces resorted to tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the determined protesters who had surrounded the mines for months. For those (in the corridors of power) who wanted to divert attention from the Letpadaung episode, the recent riots were a blessing.
But, what is new about the post-reform riots?
It is no longer simply a state-sponsored project. The State might still try to reap a harvest out of the riots, and its soldiers might even help the mob to kill the “enemy”, but the security forces is no longer in a position to dictate when, where and against whom the riots should take place.
Once the restrictions and censorships loosened in the post-reform period, the progeny of the seeds of xenophobia that was sown into the monasteries, schools and society at large for the benefit of the military regime has turned out to be beyond any authority’s control. The xenophobic campaign now is out in the public and is transnational in character, orchestrated openly on social media websites.
U Wirathu and the 969 campaign
The Human Rights Watch report gives detailed accounts of the role played by Buddhist monastic association in last year’s pogrom in Rakhine state. Various reports from affected areas in this year’s riots in Central Burma have detailed the leading role that monks are playing in the riot (which is corroborated by the video released by BCC in late April).
Burma’s Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha, drew wide spread admiration from the international community for the peaceful pro-democracy uprising against the military regime in 2007. But the same Sangha now finds its reputation put to question by reports of saffron-robed monks playing a lead role in the riots.
While the Sangha vouches by peace as a central tenet of Buddhism, their approaches to the recent riots have been less than consistent. Thitagu, a prominent abbot, in an interview with a Burmese magazine Voice weekly said that “In ethnically diverse Burma, members of different religions should live together like water flowing together”
But in the same interview Thitagu warned that “just like the Buddhist host has warmly welcomed other faiths into the country, the guests should strive to get along with the host. They should not trespass on the host’s goodwill and take over the home”.
However, in the centre of attention is U Wirathu, the abbot of Ma Soe Yein monastery in Mandalay, who heads 25,000 monks in his monastery. U Wirathu, with much pride, has called himself the Bin Laden of Burma.
Early this year he launch the 969 campaign; and claims that the movement draws upon the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of Buddha’s teaching and nine attributes of the Sangha; hence 969. The campaign urges Buddhist not to transact with Muslims economically or socially and to demarcate their houses and properties from Muslims by putting up the emblem of “969”. “969” stickers have made its way to numerous shops, taxis, buses and houses in several towns and cities.
Since the launch of the campaign, in U Wirathu’s own words, the movement has reached far and wide with its formidable stronghold being in Rangoon, Mandalay, Moulmein and Sittwe. DVDs of U Wirathu’s anti-Muslims vitriol are in widespread circulation, his anti-Muslim sermons on Youtube have been watched tens of thousands of times and there are thousands of followers on Facebook.
U Wirathu denies any direct involvement in the recent anti-Muslim riots. However, as for the case of the anti-Rohingya Muslim pogrom, various observers strongly believe that U Wirathu’s anti-Muslim vitriol did play an important role in the recent riots.
Whither the pro-democracy Opposition?
One of the disappointing facts that has emerged during the Rakhine pogrom and recent riots in Central Burma has been the clouded reaction of the pro-democracy opposition. Many, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have remained either silent or ambivalent.
Some other pro-democracy activists have even openly sided the fundamentalist elements responsible for the mayhem. Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent pro-democracy activist who spent years in jail for his lead role in 1988 student uprising, says that Rohingyas are terrorists and is infringing upon Burma’s sovereignty.
Another pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner is quoted as stating that “if western nations really believed in human rights, they would take the Rohingyas from us”.
Thousands of others from the Burmese diaspora in Australia, US, Canada, the UK and other European countries have jumped on to the bandwagon of hatemongering. Yet, many among them, are pro-democracy and human rights activists who escaped during the military regime as refugees to seek asylum in these countries.
Whither Aung San Suu Kyi?
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is seen as an icon of peace and of the quest for democracy the world over, has maintained utmost silence on the anti-Muslim campaigns and killings. Instead of forthrightly condemning the pogrom against Rohingyas last summer, she commented on Radio Free Asia that people should restrain themselves and should not fight among themselves. This, by any standard, is a gross insult to the 110 dead and 125,000 displaced people. In regards to the recent riots in Central Burma, she has called for rule of law.
Talking to The Week, Veteran Swedish journalist and author of several books on Burma, Bertil Lintner points out that “If she condemned the attacks on Muslims many Buddhists – her main constituency – would turn against her. But if she says nothing, she’ll lose credibility in the international community. She appears to have chosen the latter, and, consequently, criticism against her is growing among international human rights organisations and activists. From her point of view, that may be preferable to having domestic opinion, which is fiercely anti-Rohingya, turn against her.”
U Wirathu, the hate-spitting Sayadaw (venerable teacher), in one of his anti-Muslim sermons, urges his followers to be patriotic and to think about long term outcomes and not be lured by shortterm gains.
The non-sectarian democratic voices within Burma urgently need to urge Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same and use her moral authority to put a stop to the riots from turning into a fullblown genocide, lest the country slides back into history by another 50 years.
Bonojit Hussain is a New Delhi–based independent researcher, and an activist with New Socialist Initiative (NSI).