IN EARLY FEBRUARY I managed to negotiate my way past barbed wire barricades into a majority Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe: a dry and dusty town that sits next to the Bay of Bengal on Burma’s western coast. Automatic rifles were propped against a small wooden table next to the barricades; one policeman manning the post explained that it was his job to ensure no Muslims left the neighborhood — those who tried would be apprehended and taken back to their homes.
Beyond the barricades stretches a gravel road lined on one side by small houses, some wooden, some a drab gray concrete, and opposite a patchwork of dry paddy fields. February marks the beginning of the hot season, when the water reserves that supply the fields begin to dry up and families turn to the rice stocks stored up from the previous monsoon. Any excess produce would be taken by residents to trade in the markets in Sittwe town center, and they would bring back to their homes vital supplies like cooking oil and medicine. That most routine of daily activities, as old as the town itself, began to change in June 2012 when the first burst of frenzied mob violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities struck this western state of Rakhine. Gradually, the several thousand Muslims of Bhumi Quarter, part of the Rohingya minority ethnic group, have watched as their neighborhood has been transformed into a ghetto whose armed guards tightly restrict their movement.
Further toward the center of Sittwe, another set of barricades marks the entrance to a second Muslim neighborhood, Aung Mingalar. I’d visited there in October 2012 to report on the aftermath of a second major wave of violence between Buddhists and Muslims, and found entire blocks of houses turned to rubble. In news coverage of the violence since then, Aung Mingalar has stood as a powerful indictment of the punitive way in which the Burmese government has responded to the violence, by keeping Muslim families inside a cordoned area of the town, parts of which look like they’ve been bombed. Perhaps as a consequence of the coverage it’s received, police are now less accommodating toward journalists, and this time I was refused entry.
Echoing interviews with residents of Aung Mingalar 18 months ago, people to whom I spoke this time in Bhumi described how their confinement meant they could no longer visit the markets; how the shops they once owned in Sittwe had been appropriated, and the locks changed; how they now depended for food and income on the meager local trade inside the quarter, as well as donations from international aid groups and a network of Rakhine Buddhists still willing to help their erstwhile neighbors. One elderly man who lay on the narrow verandah of his house back from the main road, being fanned by his daughter, had developed breathing difficulties and water retention in his legs the previous month, and needed to visit the hospital in downtown Sittwe. Police at the barricades refused his request. Instead he was forced to leave through the one exit still open to Bhumi residents: a road that ends at one of the refugee camps lining the rugged coast next to Sittwe, where he checked into a clinic serving the tens of thousands of Muslims driven out of the town.
The erection of barricades are generally traced to an incident on May 28, 2012, when three Muslim men raped and murdered a 26-year-old Buddhist woman named Thida Htwe. A reprisal attack several days later by Buddhists on a busload of Muslims left 10 men dead. After that, fits of violence broke out across the state in two major bouts in June and October; stories emerged of mobs from both sides of the religious divide descending on villages, hacking women and children to death and torching homes. When I visited Aung Mingalar 18 months ago, several residents said that police had led a number of incursions by Buddhist mobs into the quarter, charges (not isolated) that the government has denied. As we picked around one area where houses had been flattened, I asked a man how the mobs had managed to make such a clean job of it — no suggestion apart from a concrete base and scattered rubble that a building had once stood here. Bulldozers had been brought in several days after the attack, he said.
Later he mentioned that bullet holes resulting from police fire had peppered the walls of one house, but that the machines had removed any evidence of this.
One of the hardest jobs for journalists covering the ethno-religious violence in Burma has been explaining its place in the wider narrative of a country undergoing democratic reforms.
The June 2012 violence happened more than a year after parliament held its first sitting in nearly half a century, and Western nations suspended sanctions. But there are two issues intrinsic to the current situation that long predate both the 2012 violence and the March 2011 start of quasi-civilian rule: one is the tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities, particularly in Rakhine State, where the main Muslim group, the Rohingya, numbering around one million, are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and thus denied citizenship; the second is the deft ability of Burma’s rulers to instigate and drive sectarian violence during politically sensitive times. Both draw on communal tensions that are rooted in colonial-era Burma, when the British brought in hundreds of thousands of Indians — of both Hindu and Muslim creed — to build the roads, railways, ports, and cities, and to file paperwork in administrative offices. Like Sri Lanka — where resentment at the million or so Tamil migrants brought to Sri Lanka to work during colonial times continues to this day — Burmese became aggrieved at jobs going to outsiders, an experience made all the more raw given the delegating was done by an imposing colonial power. In that regard, the influx of South Asians to Burma was seen as a corrosive byproduct of British rule that threatened to split society into favored “newcomers” and disenfranchised locals. Much of the rhetoric directed at the Rohingya by Rakhine nationalists today is laced with similar sentiment.
Burma’s modern-day frontiers pay little respect to homogeneity, slicing as they do through major ethnic groupings along its borders with Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh. The demarcating has annexed populations, like the Shan in the country’s east, that have more in common, culturally and linguistically, with neighboring countries than they do with mainland Burma. This friction between ethnic diversity and the consolidation of the nation-state has proved complicated for Burma. It has been the key catalyst for protracted battles for autonomy among ethnic groups the length of Burma’s periphery, but has also been the wellspring from which the military has drawn to justify authoritarian rule: threats to national unity, of which the government is the chief protector, must be combatted with high military spending, mass deployment of troops in rebellious ethnic areas, and heavy-handed treatment of saboteurs. It also provides a prime opportunity for an unpopular ruling power to vindicate its authority — if the specter of an enemy knocking at the gate is continually reinforced, then even those well versed in the duplicity and abuses of the security forces will drop prior hesitancy and call for help.
For Burma’s Muslim population, measured at around four percent of the country in the last census in 1983 (although that was widely perceived to be a conservative count), these paeans to national unity have had more far-reaching implications. Depictions of Islam as an aggressively expansionist religion have taken on added force since the September 11 attacks on the United States, and Burma has not been immune to this. Buddhism is intrinsic to the notion of identity in Burma, indeed of “being Burmese.” For centuries children were schooled by monks in monasteries, and although by no means a finished project, the gradual conversion of animist tribes in the country’s mountainous east helped to consolidate otherwise disparate groups under one common banner. Buddhist belief provided sanctuary during the dark years of military rule: some political prisoners will recall how they spent hours each day in their cells meditating and reading Buddhist literature. The country’s contribution to the preservation of Buddhism was considered all the more important in light of its decline in India and in now-Muslim majority countries like Malaysia, which Buddhist nationalists cite as evidence of Islam’s rapacious spread.
The scale of Buddhism’s importance to the Burmese bears a strong correlation to the virulence with which it has been defended. Shortly after the violence broke out in Rakhine State in 2012, Rakhine nationalists began calling for the army to step in and protect them. To those well versed in the long-standing hostility of the Rakhine toward the Burmese state — which has denied the Rakhine many of the abundant resources their state offers, and whose military has been a persistent rights abuser — this cry for intervention came as a shock. Still sore in the collective Rakhine memory is the conquest in 1784 of what was then an independent Rakhine kingdom by the central Burmese state, which deported huge chunks of the educated class and upended the Rakhine social structure. This left a deep-seated hostility toward the majority Bamar ethnicity that remains to this day, articulated through phrases like: “We are caught between Islamicisation and Burmanisation.” But despite the bitter resentment toward the central state, the call for help from security forces suggested the Rakhine considered a strong military presence on the ground in western Burma to be less of a threat to Rakhine ethnic wellbeing than the presence of a minority Muslim group. Warnings from the likes of veteran pro-democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi (a leader of the 1988 protests aimed at ousting the military from power) that he and his cohorts would take up arms alongside the military in order to fight back against “foreign invaders” — namely, the Rohingya — were similarly alarming, and marked a dramatic realignment of allegiances at precisely the same time as Burma appeared to be shaking off the yoke of military rule.
The lineage of the Rohingya in Burma is hotly debated. Ethnographer Francis Buchanan noted in a 1799 study of dialects in what is now Rakhine State that he had met with people identifying themselves as “Rooinga.” The Rakhine claim however that while some may descend from Bengalis brought in by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority nowadays are recent immigrants from Bangladesh who have adopted the ethnic identity in order to claim legal status in Burma, and thus the same rights as other ethnic groups. A UNHCR report in 2012 described the Rohingya as “virtually friendless” in Burma. That label would apply elsewhere too — Bangladesh, where up to 300,000 Rohingya live, mostly in dire conditions in camps, refuses to register the vast majority of them as refugees, fearful that it will encourage more to cross over the Teknaf River from Rakhine State and settle in the already overpopulated country. Despite the Rohingya being recognized as citizens by the first civilian government of U Nu, the 1982 Citizenship Act, overseen by General Ne Win, who had orchestrated a pogrom in 1976 of some 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, reversed this.
The statelessness of the group adds to perceptions in Burma that they are a subhuman race. The government exploits their lack of citizenship to restrict access to healthcare and education, thereby perpetually reinforcing the notion that they are uncivilized and, ergo, unworthy of citizenship. Local media plays an influential role in bestializing them. The Weekly Eleven, a prominent news journal based out of Yangon, carried a headline in June 2012 that read “Bengali Rohingyas prowl around outside Rakhine city,” conjuring up the image of a rabid pack of dogs readying for the kill. Claims of soaring birthrates among Rohingya supposedly warrant the Burmese government’s decision to place a two-child policy on the Rohingya, the only group in Burma subjected to that. The lack of ID cards means they need special permission to travel outside of their hometowns in Rakhine State, often obtainable only through a bribe. At an official level, Burma’s Consul General in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, wrote in a letter to colleagues in 2009 that the Rohingya were “ugly as ogres.” In 2013, President Thein Sein went so far as to lobby, unsuccessfully, the UN to help resettle all 1,000,000 or so of them to a third country.
Tight marriage restrictions for Rohingya, who are forced to seek official permission before being wedded, may soon affect all Muslims in Burma, exemplifying how the June 2012 violence in Rakhine State can no longer be read as an isolated explosion of interethnic fighting, but instead the trigger for a much larger campaign of religious persecution. Parliament is currently debating whether to pass the Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women, submitted by a group of monks and backed by more than 1.3 million signatories, which bans Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhists. Any non-Buddhists that do attempt to marry a Buddhist woman would face a 10-year jail term and confiscation of property. Given the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment across Burma since June 2012, and the role of monks in driving this, it is well within reason to suppose that a key tenet of the bill is the containment of Islam.
The bill however points to something that should be of more pressing concern for Burma: the rise of Buddhist extremism. On 20 March 2013, nine months after the bloodletting began in Rakhine State, violence broke out in the town of Meikhtila in central Burma following a brawl in a gold shop between Buddhist customers and the Muslim owners (who identify themselves as Muslim from the majority Bamar ethnicity, and are unrelated to the Rohingya). Soon after, the shop was torched by a Buddhist mob. Later that evening a monk was killed in a revenge attack by Muslims. Over the following three days, groups of armed men in trucks descended on Meikhtila, razing entire Muslim neighborhoods and leaving 43 dead. I visited Meikhtila two weeks later and found block after block of homes destroyed, and thousands of people, both Buddhist and Muslim, driven into camps. Over the subsequent six months, spates of deadly attacks happened in other parts of the country, and appeared to follow a pattern — trigger events causing mobs to arrive quickly in trucks and torching neighborhoods, and longtime residents often commenting that mobs were formed of “outsiders.” The similarities in method of attack has raised the question of whether a higher organizing force is orchestrating the violence, a theory given added weight by the fact that some of the locations, like Hpakant in Kachin State, had tiny Muslim populations with no history of tensions with their Buddhist neighbors. Moreover, video footage emerged of police standing by and watching as the violence raged in Meikhtila — a sight mirrored elsewhere in 2013. Either the spread of interreligious animosities has been so rapid and overwhelming that communities that for decades had coexisted harmoniously are suddenly erupting in fits of rage, or a dark hand is deliberately instigating the unrest.
In the aftermath of another round of violence in the Rakhine State town of Thandwe in October last year, in which a 94-year-old woman of the Muslim Kaman minority — again distinct from Rohingya — was slain by sword in her bed, President Thein Sein was quoted in the media as saying, “External motives instigated violence and conflicts. According to the evidence in hand, rioters who set fire to the villages are outsiders.”
The decades of dictatorship greatly eroded the organizing capacity of Burmese, leaving only two entities — the military and the Buddhist monks’ council, known as the sangha — with the capacity to coordinate members across the country. There is no smoking gun to prove either way who, if anyone, is behind this, but two theories carry weight.
First, elements of the political-military elite — or former high rankers now positioning themselves for local economic or political gain — who are unnerved by the potential for current reforms to weaken their standing at the top of the pile may see the unrest as an opportunity to justify a backsliding to stronger military rule. Other periods of interethnic or religious violence, such as the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the attacks on Muslim communities in central and eastern Burma in 1988, coincided with periods in which the regime was facing increasing public disquiet. On both occasions it was believed that members of the junta deliberately inflamed ethnic tensions in order to distract from the regime’s own shortcomings and to justify heavy-handedness, particularly in 1988 when a mass uprising broke out.
Second, given the paramount and inviolable place of Buddhism in the national psyche, the sangha too would have its own reasons for wanting to stem what many perceive to be Islam’s spread. Its members’ backing of the marriage bill suggests preemptive action is already being taken. In the toxic climate that has emerged over the past two years, it wouldn’t be too great a leap for aggrieved and frightened civilians to translate calls by top monks for the protection of Buddhism into acts of violence against those they consider a threat to it. With respect to the violence, the relationship between the citizenry, sangha, and military may then have become one of synthesis, with each reinforcing and supporting one another.
In a perceptive essay published in February, Kyaw San Wai, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, explained the “siege mentality” suffered by many Buddhists in Burma who point to millenarian fears about the demise of their religion to explain this resistance to the rise of other belief systems.
While international coverage points to Myanmar’s religious demographics to discredit fears of Islamic encroachment, Burmese Buddhists have a starkly different world view where their faith is besieged by larger, well-endowed and better-organised faiths. This millenarianism can be traced to a scripturally unsupported but widely believed “prophecy” that Buddhism will disappear 5000 years after the Buddha’s passing. As 1956 is considered the halfway point, the belief is that Buddhism is now declining irreversibly.
Acts of anti-Buddhist violence elsewhere in the region give these fears greater traction: the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 by the Taliban, or the torching of 22 Buddhist temples and monasteries by Muslim mobs in Bangladesh in 2012, for example.
Much of the media focus on this unfamiliar specter of Buddhist extremism has centered on U Wirathu. He is the influential abbot of a monastery in Mandalay and figurehead of a nascent movement that uses as its symbol 969 — a sacred number that signifies the attributes of Buddha and his teachings — and which touts the unassailable virtues of Buddhism over Islam. A TIME magazine cover story in 2013 cast U Wirathu in provocative terms as “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” and journalists, myself included, have flocked to his leafy temple compound in Mandalay to hear his claims that Muslim rape gangs are sweeping in from Bangladesh and terrorizing Buddhist families. His sermonizing, circulated on the internet and on DVDs, has been influential in driving public opinion against Muslims. A young ex-monk who set up my meeting with U Wirathu had explained on the way to the monastery that he opposed the abbot’s extremist views; several days later, however, he’d U-turned. An SMS came through saying that he’d watched one of the DVDs: “I feel very angry — they [Muslims] take our air, water, land; they make terrorism!”
But the media focus on U Wirathu — all too appealing, given the shock factor of his comments — has distracted from the fact that something far bigger than one man’s ego was unleashed in June 2012: an alliance built on shared spiritual interests between civilians and a Burmese elite who may not want the country to move in the direction of democracy. The perceived gains of this alliance — the hope that Buddhism will be protected from the phantom menace of Islam — appears to trump any political or human cost incurred by a reinvigorated military, or indeed a militant sangha.
The persistently shrill rhetoric surrounding the violence has helped to fuel the crisis. In western Burma, the loudest shouts don’t center on building communal harmony between Rohingya and Rakhine, but on battling for survival. That fight talk creates ever-deeper fissures. This has had a significant effect on the political arena, most glaringly in the opposition camp. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a frustratingly ambivalent line, maintaining that she has never been one to criticize or take sides. In truth however, such is the intensity of existential fears about the presence of the Rohingya in Burma (and increasingly Muslims in general) — that they are stealing land and forcing Buddhist women to convert — that her support base may consider condemnation of attacks on the minority as tantamount to conniving in the erosion of Buddhism. This would have a devastating effect on her bid for presidency in 2015. Rather than commit one way or the other, she emphasizes the need to address the Citizenship Act, or to respect the vague parameters of Rule of Law. Still no one in either political camp is willing to make the simple plea that issues of citizenship, religion, and ethnicity don’t become the determinants for whether or not someone is butchered in the street.
In February, the French charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was suspended from working in Rakhine State, where it has provided medical assistance to nearly 200,000 Rohingya in camps who are largely dependent on outside aid. The charge: going public about its treatment of 22 survivors of a massacre of 40 Rohingya in the town of Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State on January 13, in which the UN has said security forces were complicit. The government has repeatedly denied the massacre took place, and accused journalists of falsifying reports.
MSF’s expulsion set in motion a train of events that have brought the crisis in Rakhine State into much sharper focus. In late March, a staff member of a foreign NGO in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe removed a Buddhist flag that had been placed in front of their office. A Buddhist mob quickly formed in front of the office and began stoning it. Attacks then quickly spread to 30 other NGO offices in the town, and by the following day, boats and vehicles used to deliver aid to Rohingya camps had been destroyed. Foreign NGO workers were evacuated from Sittwe, and the names of local Rakhine who had been working with international NGOs to assist Rohingya were distributed around town on lists of “offenders.” As one foreign aid worker told me several days after the attacks, “The entire infrastructure for the international community to deliver aid of any sort, let alone humanitarian aid, has been very effectively made inoperable in a clearly planned and orchestrated way.”
On March 30, the government embarked on its first census since 1983. Frequent reports then emerged that enumerators were entering refugee camps and villages and leaving with blank forms after inhabitants refused to list their ethnicity as “Bengali.” Moreover, the last census is thought to have underestimated the Muslim population of Burma by about six percent, meaning that an accurate recording now would show a surge in the numbers of Muslims in the country, thereby driving fears of Islamization among Buddhist nationalists, and heightening the potential for more violence.
In November 2012, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which holds 35 seats in parliament, wrote in its party magazine:
Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews, but they were probably heroes to the Germans […] In order for a country’s survival, the survival of a race, or in defense of national sovereignty, crimes against humanity or in-human acts may justifiably be committed […] So, if that survival principle or justification is applied or permitted equally (in our Myanmar case) our endeavors to protect our Rakhine race and defend the sovereignty and longevity of the Union of Myanmar cannot be labeled as “crimes against humanity,” or “inhuman” or “in-humane” [sic] […] We will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these issues [Rohingya] to the next generation without getting it over and done with.
The invocation of Nazi ideology is of course deeply concerning, and appears to flow from a local version of master race theory: Buddhism as pure and morally unassailable, Islam as nefarious and crusading, with the perpetrator recast as the defender. That discrimination is codified through official measures like the restrictions on movement and reproduction for Rohingya. But the underlying prejudice is not particular to western Burma — instead, as attacks on Muslims elsewhere signal, the conflict is being increasingly drawn along religious lines, and with that demarcation, the potential for its containment recedes greatly. How this conflict will in any way benefit Rakhine or Burmese in the long-term is hard to see. It can only strengthen those forces in the country hostile to democratic progress, and threaten a rethink of the incoming resources — particularly in the healthcare and education sectors — that Western nations had offered as a reward for transitioning away from military rule.
The wider effects of this will eventually come back to haunt those now agitating for violence in the name of religious and ethnic harmony. Were someone able to articulate the Pyrrhic nature of any “victory” in this conflict then it might give pause to those on the ground, themselves long disenfranchised by the government, who are now both delivering the state’s persecutory policies and acting as the smokescreen behind which the real puppeteers can hide. But the great irony in Burma today is that forces across the entire political spectrum, from those who suffered immeasurably in the fight for democracy, to those architects of that suffering, are working to ensure that conversation doesn’t happen.