Fear goes viral among Myanmar Muslims
Attacks and threats from Buddhists take psychological toll
Myanmar Muslims pray at the Narsapuri Mosque in downtown Yangon.
When reports began emerging last week that violence against Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State had once again broken out, text messages and social media posts quickly circulated around the large Muslim community in Yangon.
The Myanmar government has denied allegations that Muslims in the northern part of the state — ethnic Rohingya who are not recognized as citizens of the country — were killed during alleged attacks by security forces and Rakhine Buddhists. But almost two years after violence first broke out in Rakhine State in mid-2012 — before spreading elsewhere in the country to affect non-Rohingya Muslims — trust in what the government says on the issue is low.
“Being a Muslim in this country the last two years, we are living in fear,” said Khin Maung Myint, the head of foreign relations for the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and a Rohingya.
“The uniformed forces are not intervening. The people are forced to think that there’s [official] involvement. If they are not involved in this, why don’t they intervene?” he asked, adding that it was not the majority of Myanmar Buddhists, but hardline “radicals” who are “taking the law into their own hands and are persecuting the Muslims.”
Suspicions about who is behind attacks on Muslims are often pointed at sections of the former military regime who, so the theory popular among local Muslims goes, want to destabilize the path to democracy that could see power handed over to the massively popular democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.
In its annual World Report released on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said the Myanmar government had taken “inadequate measures to prevent or stop” attacks on Muslims, who make up the vast majority of the hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced in recent communal violence. The group warned that the handling of the issue was undermining other gains made by the reforming quasi-civilian government that took over in 2011.
Violence elsewhere in the country has brought what local Muslims describe as a siege mentality in their communities in Yangon, the country’s most populous city and center of commerce.
“I would not go out on the highways,” one Muslim resident of Yangon said. “It’s not safe.”
There have been reports of Muslims being harrassed, robbed or even beaten on cross-country buses. True or false, these create paranoia.
“You only leave Yangon if you have to, if you have important business,” said the resident, who asked not to be named due the risks involved with speaking publicly about the issue.
Al Haj U Aye Lwin, chief convener at the Yangon-based Islamic Centre of Myanmar, said incidents of violence against Muslims “create mistrust” and a divide between the Muslim population and the mainly Buddhist authorities they expect to protect them.
“The gap is getting wider and it makes the rumors go wild,” he said. “People are harboring some prejudices against each other and after the incidents, it fuels these misconceptions.”
Al Haj U Aye Lwin said that although oppression of Muslims in Rakhine State was clearly continuing, he was skeptical about the claims of killings there last week — independent observers have not been able to visit the area to confirm or deny the allegations — and urged against jumping to conclusions.
“It’s highly emotional and there are reasons to have such fears and doubts, but you have to be rational and depend on facts,” he said. Caution and calm among Muslims was necessary, Al Haj U Aye Lwin said, particularly in the face of “provocative activities.”
One example of this is the small Buddhist outposts that have appeared in majority-Muslim neighborhoods of Yangon that at times blare out songs and speeches, along with religious messages, that Al Haj U Aye Lwin described as “ultranationalist.” They often display the controversial “969” emblem, which goes along with calls to boycott non-Buddhist businesses.
“They have a right to protect their Buddhist faith. But some people are trying to instigate,” said U Aye Lwin. “They use the word 'kalar'. It’s a degrading word, just like using the word 'n****r' in America.”
Nonetheless, the city of about five million people has not seen communal violence. Muslims however remain fearful, he says, with men still taking turns to guard residential areas and mosques at night.
Khin Maung Myint of the NDPD said that while local authorities in Yangon and nearby Ayeyarwady division have been clear they will not tolerate violence against Muslims — an apparently effective policy — this just goes to show that elsewhere the authorities’ pleas that they cannot do anything about rampaging mobs of Buddhists are hollow. “You can control it because you have absolute power,” he insisted.
A coalition of Rakhine Buddhists and the nationwide 969 movement, led by the monk U Wirathu, argues that Buddhism is under threat from illegal immigration from Bangladesh and from Muslims who want to convert and marry Buddhist women.
“We have been living in this country for generations, for centuries,” counters Khin Maung Myint, referring to the long history of Muslims in many parts of Myanmar predating British colonialism.
In November, monks and Buddhists marched through the heart of Yangon’s majority-Muslim downtown in an angry protest against a visit by a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This fact finding mission, taking in Rakhine State — in an apparently highly stage managed tour of camps for the displaced — and the capital, Naypyidaw, drew opposition from the anti-Muslim movement. A banner carried by the monks called Muslims “animals”.
In response, there was no counter demonstration, but simply a call for something to be done about the “hate speech” on the banner. The government promised action, but no one has been prosecuted.
“If we do [protest], the next day, we will be disappeared,” said Khin Maung Myint. “We are very weak and we are very vulnerable. We are facing adversity and persecution, but we can’t do anything. We are tied.”
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