Can Obama help Burma’s persecuted Muslims?

Print More
18th-century depiction of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Public domain

18th-century depiction of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

18th-century depiction of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

18th-century depiction of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Having concluded an historic agreement with China to mitigate global climate change, President Obama arrives in Burma today hoping to improve the political and religious climate in that troubled Buddhist country. Progress towards democracy has stalled and, in one of the most disturbing human rights stories of the past few years, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority continues apace.

What the outside world fails to appreciate is just how deeply enmeshed the persecution of the Rohingya is in the larger political situation. Essential reading in this regard is  “Breaking Bad in Burma,” a uniquely revealing article by the University of Wisconsin’s Ingrid Jordt.

As Jordt makes clear, Buddhism is the constituting reality of the Burmese state. It confers national identity and determines political legitimacy. Its institutional health depends on Burmese control of economic life. And when any of the above is threatened, as they’ve been in the past few years, anxiety about ethno-religious minorities like the Rohingya rises — and is ripe for exploitation by the powers-that-be.

There’s no question that the current powers-that-be — former military rulers in civilian garb — have been engaged in such exploitation. They have fostered the anti-Muslim activism by Buddhist monks that has so shocked outsiders accustomed to thinking of Buddhist monks as gentle souls dedicated to peace among all peoples.  The opening up of the Burmese economy to international capitalism has been used to weaken the capacity of the Buddhist establishment to oppose autocratic rule.

Outsiders have also been disturbed by the conspicuous silence regarding the Rohingya of Aung San Syuu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist who aspires to be Burma’s next president. But as Jordt makes clear, Syuu Kyi represents a secularized Buddhism more in tune with Western values than with the metaphysics of Burmese statecraft. Her room for maneuver inside Burma has been severely constricted.

In the past, Burmese rulers have been able to shore up their power by playing the anti-Muslim card. But they have also been prepared to back off when it suits their purposes. It may well turn out that, in the face of criticism by the American president and other international leaders, the present regime will take steps to lower the pressure on the Rohingya.

But fundamental change seems a very long way off.

  • Stephen Kent Gray

    Sectarian clashes occur sporadically in Rakhine State, often between the majority Buddhist Rakhine people and sizable minority Rohingya Muslims. The Burmese government classifies the Rohingya as “immigrants” to Burma, and thus not eligible for citizenship. Some historians argue that the group dates back centuries while others say that it emerged around the middle of 20th century. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. They are subject to restrictions on education, marriage, reproduction and property ownership, as well as forced labor and sexual abuse by the state army. Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said “All those years of discrimination, abuses and neglect are bound to bubble up at some point, and that’s what we are seeing now.”

    On the evening of 28 May, a group of Muslim men robbed, raped and murdered an ethnic Rakhine woman, Ma Thida Htwe, near her village Tha Pri Chaung on May 28 in 2012, when she was returning home from Kyauk Ni Maw Village of Rambree township. The locals claim the culprits to have been Rohingya Muslims. The police arrested three suspects and sent them to Yanbye township jail. On 3 June, a mob attacked a bus in Taungup, apparently mistakenly believing those responsible for the murder were on board. Ten Muslims were killed in the attack, prompting protests by Burmese Muslims in the commercial capital, Yangon. The government responded by appointing a minister and a senior police chief to head an investigation committee. The committee was ordered to find out “cause and instigation of the incident” and to pursue legal action. As of 2 July, 30 people had been arrested over the killing of the Muslims.

    Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups flared into violent clashes in Meiktila on March 20 and continued until the 22nd, killing at least 40 and wounding 61 people. The violence started on March 20 after a Muslim gold shop owner, his wife, and two Muslim employees allegedly assaulted a Buddhist customer and her husband in an argument over a golden hairpin. The situation further escalated when a local Buddhist monk was dragged from his bicycle, doused in petrol, and burnt alive by six Muslim youths at a nearby mosque.

    In July a Facebook post emerged of a Buddhist girl being raped, supposedly by a Muslim man. In retaliation an angry, vengeful mob of 300 people started throwing stones and bricks at a tea stall. The mob went on to attack Muslim shops and vehicles and shouting slogans in Muslim residential areas. Two men – one Buddhist and one Muslim were killed, and a curfew was imposed on 3 July.

    According to the above examples, most of the violence is related to cycles of revenge that happen every so often usually ignited by Rakhine women being raped by Rohingya men or economic disputes like that gold hairpin deal that went violent. There was another incident and series of incidents that happened back in 1997 that was started because of a broken Buddha statue.

    Also, the issue involves whether Rohingya are citizens or not. Rohingyas claims they are. Rakhine claim that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or the descendants of such since apparently Burma doesn’t have jus soli citizenship. I did hear of plans to grant citizenship if they can prove that they have ancestry from Burmese citizens dating back to 1948 when Burma became independent. Unlike America where the children of illegal immigrants if born here get birthright citizenship, Burma has no such thing apparently. The claim is that before 1948m there were no Rohingya in Burma and that they illegally immigrated from Bangladesh. Since citizenship passes from parents to children in Burma apparently, Rohingya could never become citizens according to the claim. That is unless they can prove descent from an ancestor who was a Burmese citizen. I don’t really know about Bangladesh, but it seems to no want to have the Rohingyas there even if the Bangladesh descent claim is true.

    While there is persection of Muslims in Burma and anti Rohingya ethnic sentiment, this only sparks into violence once there is a spark ignited by Rohingya atangonizing the rest of the Burmese with things like rape and broken statues.

  • Curious

    “…this only sparks into violence once there is a spark ignited by Rohingya atangonizing the rest of the Burmese with things like rape and broken statues.”

    Sort of like in the southern US, where black people only got lynched when they supposedly went around raping white women? That’s convenient. I like how we go from qualifications like “raped…supposedly by a Muslim man” to the conclusion that Muslims are raping everyone, but I guess inconsistencies are to be expected when your post is a copy-and-paste job from various sources.

  • Stephen Kent Gry

    Curious, here is your proof!

    Ma Thida Htwe, a young woman victim was remembered gracefully by a youth group in Kyauk Pru, the second largest city of Arakan State of Burma. The occasion was Ma Thida Htwe Memorial Day observed on 28 May last.

    The participants are lighting candles in front of Buddha image on the day.

    Mentionable is that Ma Thida Htwe was raped and murdered by a group of three Muslim youths near her village Tha Pri Chaung on May 28 in 2012, when she was returning home from Kyauk Ni Maw Village of Rambree township.

    “We observed the Ma Thida Htwe memorial day with religious flavor praying for her departed soul. We had lighted 969 candles in front of Lord Buddha’s image. It was done only for her remembrance, not for other purposes,” said Dr Tun Myint, one of the participants in the ceremony.

    The sectarian violence in Arakan State broke out last year after Ma Thida Htwe rape & murder case.

    Around 60 local residents, mostly youths from Kyauk Pru, participated in the ceremony, which was organized at upper hill laying Buddha statues temple in Kyauk Pru.

    “We offered flowers, foods and robes to the monks in the ceremony. The ceremony was stared at 9 in the morning and concluded at 12 am,” the participant added.

    Some officials from the intelligent department arrived in the location and watched the ceremony, but they did not interfere on the celebration.

    Meanwhile, a school building built in the memory of Ma Thida Htwe was opened in the supervision of a prominent monk named Bagalay Saradaw in her native village (Tha Pri Chaung) on the same day.

    Over the last two years accusations of sexual assault and local disputes have created a flashpoint for violence that has quickly escalated into widespread communal clashes.

    The first and most deadly incident began in June 2012 when widespread rioting and clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, largely thought to be Rohingya Muslims, left 200 dead and displaced thousands. It was the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman which sparked off that deadly chain of events

    In March 2013 an argument in a gold shop in Meiktila in central Myanmar led to violence between Buddhists and Muslims which left more than 40 people dead and entire neighbourhoods razed

    In August 2013 rioters burnt Muslim-owned houses and shops in the central town of Kanbalu after police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman

    In January 2014, the UN said that more than 40 Rohingya men, women and children were killed in Rakhine state in violence that flared after accusations that Rohingyas killed a Rakhine policeman.

    In June 2014, two people were killed and five hurt in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, following a rumour that spread on social media that a Buddhist woman had been raped by one or more Muslim men

    Last May, three Muslim Rohingya raped a Buddhist woman. The incident served as a catalyst for increased sectarian violence in the southwest state of Rakhine, where the majority of the Rohingya live. Thus far, Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 100,000 more Rohingya have become refugees as a result of this conflict. This group will join the already-overpopulated regional refugee camps currently home to about 300,000 Rohingya.

    The rape and murder of a 27-year-old seamstress Ma Thida Htwe on 28 May 2012 has led long simmering tensions to erupt into violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Media reports said police the next day detained three Muslim suspects. One day later, crowds of Buddhists besieged the local police station demanding that the suspects, who had already been transferred to prison, be handed over. On 3 June, after the reported distribution of inflammatory leaflets against Muslims, a Yangon-bound bus was stopped by a crowd of some 300 people in Toungup township, and ten Muslim passengers were taken off and beaten to death. One Buddhist, said to be mistaken for Muslim, was also murdered.

    As you can see, I am right!

  • Larry

    Genocide of ethnic minorities in Myanmar is well documented. Not just against Muslims. In Shan State the government tried to wipe out the Karen People (Myanmar version of “indigenous people”) as well

    As with all sectarian and ethnic conflicts, the blame is usually put squarely on the minority group as being somehow uncivilized. All the while ignoring very tangible forms of legalized oppression.

  • Jack

    Indeed you are right. While this doesn’t minimize the horrible suffering endured by the Rohingya, it should give anyone pause who believes victimhood confers virtue.

  • Jack

    Larry, I don’t know anyone outside of Burma/Myanmar who blames the Rohingya for their horrific plight. It is truly one of the worst situations in the world.

  • The Great God Pan

    “I don’t know anyone outside of Burma/Myanmar who blames the Rohingya for their horrific plight.”

    Really? There is quite a lengthy post in this very thread that blames them.

  • Dave V

    So Muslims get help for being persecuted so that they can rise in numbers to then be able to persecute and slaughter anyone that opposes Islam?

    Don’t you think, Mr. President, that it is far past time to hold Islam and its adherents “Muslims” to the crimes they commit LITERALLY IN THE NAME OF ISLAM?

    If they do not want to be persecuted, shouldn’t they then not persecute non Muslims when they are in power?

    I smell hypocrisy brewing next to the coffee.

  • Jack

    That’s not how I read it, Pan. The poster was telling the truth about how the Rohingyas aren’t perfectly innocent, either. But that is no excuse for their horrific mistreatment as a people and I don’t think the poster was offering an excuse for it.

  • Jack

    The situation of the Rohingyas is truly tragic and merits our help.

    That doesn’t mean we should be soft on radical Islam. That’s a separate issue. Obama is too soft and that must change. Nor does it mean we should sweep Islam’s enormous problems under the proverbial rug. We often do that, too. Recall President Bush’s naïve and historically ignorant term, “peaceful religion.”

    However, none of this contradicts the need to help the Rohingya civilians however we can.