, by ASIF AHMED
Islam, mainly of the Sunni sect, is practised by 4 per cent of the population of Burma, according to the government census. However, according to the US State Department’s 2006 International religious freedom report, official statistics underestimates the non-Buddhist population which could be as high as 30 per cent. Muslim leaders estimate that as much as 20 per cent of the population may be Muslims. Muslims are spread across the country in small communities.
The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, the members of his family and some followers were exiled to Yangon, Myanmar. He died during his imprisonment in Yangon and was buried on 7.11.1862. After the British took over the whole Burma, all sub groups of Burmese Muslims formed numerous organisations, active in social welfare and religious affairs. The Indian-descended Muslims live mainly in Rangoon. The Rohingya are a minority Muslim ethnic group in Northern Rakhine State, Western Burma. The Rohingya population is mostly concentrated in five northern townships of Rakhine State: Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Akyab, Sandway, Tongo, Shokepro, Rashong Island and Kyauktaw. The stated official policy of the government of Burma is that all ethnic, religious, and language groups in Burma are equal.
RELIGIOUS AND RACIAL RIOTS
Under the British rule, economic pressures and xenophobia contributed to the rise of anti-Indian, and later anti-Muslim sentiment. Following an anti-Indian riot in 1930, racial tensions flared between the ethnic Burmese, Indian immigrants, and British rulers. Burmese sentiment turned against those viewed as foreigners, including Muslims of all ethnic groups. Following this, an anti-Muslim riot occurred in 1938, strongly influenced by newspapers.
BURMA FOR BURMESE CAMPAIGN
These events led to the creation of the Burma for Burmese only Campaign, which staged a march to a Muslim Bazaar. While the Indian police broke the violent demonstration, three monks were hurt. Burmese newspapers used the pictures of Indian police attacking the Buddhist monks to further incite the spread of riots. Muslim shops, houses, and mosques were looted, destroyed, or burnt to ashes. Muslims were also assaulted and killed. The violence spread throughout Burma, with a total of 113 mosques damaged.
BRITISH INQUIRY COMMITTEE
On September 22, 1938, the British Governor set up an Inquiry Committee. This committee determined that the real cause of the discontent toward the government was deterioration of socio-political and economic conditions in Burma. This report was also used by Burmese newspapers to incite hatred against the British, Indians, and Muslims. The Simon Commission which had been established to inquire into the effects of the Dyarchy system of ruling India and Burma in 1927, recommended that special places be assigned to the Burmese Muslims in the Legislative Council. It also recommended that full rights of citizenship should be guaranteed to all minorities: the right of free worship, the right to follow their own customs, the right to own property and to receive a share of public revenues for the maintenance of their own educational and charitable institutions. It further recommended Home Rule or independent government separate from India or the status of dominion.
ANTI-FASCIST PEOPLE’S FREEDOM LEAGUE
The BMC, Burma Muslim Congress, was founded almost at the same time as the AFPFL, Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League of General Aung San and U Nu before World War II. U Nu became the first Prime Minister of Burma in 1948, following Burmese independence. Shortly after, he requested that the BMC resign its membership from AFPFL. In response, U Khin Maung Lat, the new President of BMC, decided to discontinue the religious practices of BMC and rejoin AFPFL. U Nu asked the BMC to dissolve in 1955, and removed it from AFPFL on September 30, 1956. Later U Nu decreed Buddhism as the state religion of Burma, angering religious minorities.
NE WIN’S COUP D’ÉTAT
After the coup d’état of General Ne Win in 1962, the status of Muslims changed for the worse. Muslims were expelled from the army and were rapidly marginalised. The generic racist slur of “kala” (black) used against perceived “foreigners” gained especially negative connotations when referring to Burmese Muslims during this time. Accusations of “terrorism” were made against Muslim organisations such as the All Burma Muslim Union, causing Muslims to join armed resistance groups to fight for greater freedoms.
ANTI-MUSLIM RIOTS IN MANDALAY
On March 16, 1997, at about 3:30 p.m., following reports of an alleged attempt to rape by Muslim men, a mob of about 1,000-1,500 Buddhist monks and others gathered in Mandalay. They targeted the mosques, followed by Muslim shop-houses and transportation vehicles in the vicinity of mosques. Looting, destruction of property, assault, and religious desecration were reported. At least three people were killed and around 100 monks arrested.
RIOTS IN SITTWE AND TAUNGOO
In February 2001 tension between Buddhists and Muslims was also high in Sittwe. Resentments were deeply rooted, and the result from both communities was that they were under siege from the other. The violence in February 2001 flared up after an incident in which seven young monks refused to pay a Muslim stall holder for cakes they had just eaten. The Muslim seller, a woman, retaliated by beating one of the novices, according to a Muslim witness. He attested that several senior monks then came to protest and a brawl ensued. One of the monks was hit over the head by the Muslim seller’s husband and started to bleed. Riots then broke out. A full-scale riot erupted after dusk and carried on for several hours. Buddhists poured gasoline on Muslim homes and properties and set them alight. More than 30 homes and a Muslim guest house were burnt down. Police and soldiers reportedly stood by and did nothing to stop the violence initially. There are no reliable estimates of the death toll or the number of injuries. More than 20 died, according to some Muslim activists. The fighting took place in the predominantly Muslim part of town and so it was predominantly Muslim property that was damaged.
In 2001, Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Hla Tai , The Fear of Losing One’s Race, and many other anti-Muslim pamphlets were widely distributed by monks. Distribution of pamphlets was also facilitated by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a civilian organisation instituted by the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Many Muslims feel that this exacerbated the anti-Muslim feelings that had been provoked by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the Bamyan Province of Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch reports that there was mounting tension between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Taungoo for weeks before it erupted into violence in the middle of May 2001. Buddhist monks demanded that the Hantha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in “retaliation” for the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Mobs of Buddhists, led by monks, vandalised Muslim-owned businesses and properties, and attacked and killed Muslims. On May 15, 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Taungoo, Bago division, resulting in the deaths of about 200 Muslims, destruction of 11 mosques, and setting ablaze of over 400 houses. On this day also, about 20 Muslims praying in the Han Tha mosque were beaten, some to death, by the pro-junta forces. On May 17, 2001, Lt. General Win Myint, Secretary No. 3 of the SPDC and Deputy Home and Religious Minister arrived and curfew was imposed in Taungoo. All communication lines were disconnected.
On May 18, the Han Tha mosque and Taungoo Railway station mosque were razed by bulldozers owned by the SPDC .The mosques in Taungoo remained closed until May 2002, with Muslims forced to worship in their homes. After two days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended. There were reports that local government authorities alerted Muslim elders in advance of the attacks and warned them not to retaliate to avoid escalating the violence. While the details of how the attacks began and who carried them out were unclear by year’s end, the violence significantly heightened tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities
Gautama Buddha very rightly said: “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”
But I don’t think Rakhine Buddhists are in a state anymore to ponder over it. Muslims in Burma’s western state of Rakhine have been subjected to attacks, arbitrary arrests and were abused in the weeks since ethnic clashes erupted. According to a report by Amnesty International, hundreds of people were detained in the areas where Muslim Rohingya people live after an emergency was declared in Rakhine in June after deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Amnesty accused Burmese security forces as well as ethnic Rakhine Buddhist residents of assaults, unlawful killings of Muslims and the destruction of property. A state of emergency was declared in Rakhine in June after deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Since then, hundreds of people have been detained in the areas where Muslim Rohingya people live, a spokesman said. The government has dismissed the allegations as “groundless and biased”. Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, told the Associated Press news agency that the claims are “totally opposite of what is happening on the ground”, adding that the region was calm. But although communal violence has eased since the unrest in June, violations by the security forces appear to have increased, rights groups say.
“Most cases have meant targeted attacks on the minority Rohingya population and they were bearing the brunt of most of that communal violence in June and they continue to bear the lion’s share of the violations perpetrated by the state security forces,” Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki told the BBC’s Viv Marsh.
ANTI-MUSLIM RIOTS IN RAKHINE
Buddhists started another genocide in Rakhine in June 2012, after Myanmar’s President Thein Sein had said Rohingya Muslims must be expelled from the country and sent to refugee camps run by the United Nations. It all started on June 3, 2012 when 11 innocent Muslims were killed by the Burmese Army and the Buddhist mobs after bringing them down from a bus. A vehement protest was carried out in the Muslim majority province of Arakan, but the protestors fell victim to the tyranny of the mobs and the army. More than 50 people were reportedly killed and thousands of homes destroyed in fires as Muslim-ethnic Rohingya and Buddhist-ethnic Arakanese clashed in western Burma.
While the idea of monks actually leading rioters may seem unusual, certain details make it less so. Burma’s large and much feared military intelligence service, the Directorate of Defence Security Intelligence, is commonly believed to have agents working within the monk-hood. Human Rights Watch also reported that monks in the 2001 riots were carrying mobile phones, a luxury not readily available to the Burmese population, as very few without government connections can afford them. It is also reported that there was a clear split between monks who provoked violence and those who did not. It has been suggested by Human Rights Watch and others that these facts may reflect the presence of agents provocateur among the monks.
EMBASSY OF MYANMAR STATEMENT
Amidst spreading anger among Muslims in India over the killings of Muslims in Myanmar, the Embassy of Myanmar in New Delhi has come up with first official and detailed explanation about the violent clashes, its origin and the measures the Government of Myanmar has taken to control the situation and provide relief for the victims. According to Myanmar Ambassador Zin Yaw, what has happened recently in the Rakhine State of Myanmar was violent clashes and riots between Buddhists and Muslims in the state – it was not one-sided killing of Muslims by another group with the support of the state. According to Yaw, only 79 persons comprising members of both communities have been killed in the riots that started on May 30, 2012. He termed the photos of mass killings of Muslims as fake and described the reports as baseless accusations.
According to the BBC, the group also said that authorities allowed Rakhine youth to assault Rohingyas in custody. The group also alleged that Burmese authorities took part in looting of shops and homes belonging to Rohingyas. The government has, however, dismissed the allegations as ‘groundless and biased’. Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, said the claims are ‘totally opposite of what is happening on the ground’.
Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, which focuses on Rohingyas in the region, told BBC that hundreds of Rohingya Muslims had been arrested, with allegations that some had been beaten and even tortured. “Shortly after the main violence... then we start seeing a new phase of, I would say, state-sanctioned abuses, where especially in Maung Daw... we heard on a daily basis about mass arrests of Rohingya,” Ms Lewa told the BBC. The Arakan Project also says that some Rakhine, particularly those found with weapons, were arrested. It is difficult to verify any of the information provided by such sources, as journalists cannot access the area.
(to be concluded)