New anti-Muslim violence in Burma – RTÉ World Report

RTEradio – radio story here. Script below.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Two years into what are usually described as Burma’s dramatic and striking reforms, in a country often lauded as a “new Myanmar,” to use the government’s official name for the country, and the one that enthusiastic would-be investors default to, an increasingly-nasty anti Muslim campaign seems to be picking up across this diverse and long-troubled land.

This week, Buddhist-Muslim violence, which has hit several regions of the country since about a year ago, spread to Lashio, in Shan State in the country’s east – close to the infamous Golden Triangle drugs area and long a redoubt for traffickers and ethnic minority militias that have fought the Burmese army for decades.

A Muslim man is said to have gotten into argument with a local Buddhist woman, and, for whatever reason, set her on fire. She’s in hospital being treated for her wounds, but, as word spread of the attack, mobs gathered – including Saffron-robed Buddhist monks – and looted and burned Muslim property in the town.

Those are the same-hued monks that marched against military rule in world headline grabbing protests in 2007, and, for starry-eyed tourists and backpackers, are supposed to be emblematic of the peacenik, tolerant cliché that underpins much of  western imaginings about Buddhism.

So much for clichés. The Muslim Rohingya have long been oppressed in Burma – regarded not as one of the country’s ethnic groups, but as Bengali immigrants and not entitled to citizenship in Burma.

Hundreds of thousands fled pogroms in the 70s and 90s, but since the loosening of military rule, a new wave of savagery has been unleashed – mainly by Rakhine Buddhists in the west. Sectarian and ethnic riots that followed the tragic murder of a young Buddhist woman last year later took on the hallmarks of anti-Muslim pogrom.

In more recent months, a rabble-rousing Buddhist monk called Wirathu has taken his so-called 969 campaign to other parts of Burma – urging Buddhists, who make up around 90 per cent of the population – though no one knows for sure given that there hasn’t been a census for thirty years – to boycott Muslim shops.

That is, not just Rohingya, but all of Burma’s roughly 5 million Muslims, who are scattered across what is in effect a vast country – the size of Britain and France combined, but given the poor state of the roads and communications, it feels much bigger if you try to travel around by road.

And in recent months, there have been Buddhist-Muslim clashes in central Burma, where the ethnic Burman majority mostly live. Houses burned, mosques burned, schools burned. And , in a couple of gruesome cases – schoolchildren attending Islamic schools – lynched, murdered and set alight. And a Muslim school in Rangoon, the country’s biggest city, caught fire in mysterious circumstances in April, and 13 kids died.

In the aftermath of all the recent Muslim-Buddhist violence, most of the prosecutions and jailings have been Muslims. While the violence has not been one way, the majority of it has been directed against Muslims, but the Burmese justice system seems to be working solely to prosecute those Muslims caught doing wrong.

After the latest bout of violence in Shan State, notices and 969 stickers went up across Rangoon, the country’s biggest city, warning of the Muslim threat to Buddhist Burma.

But what of Aung San Suu Kyi, in recent decades a touted as sort of a secular saint in the eyes not only of Burmese, but of western advocates for reform in Burma? As her country looks increasingly prone to a mix of Buddhist demagoguery and ethnic Burman supremacism. The Lady, as she is known locally, seems to have one eye on the majority Burman Buddhist vote in the election due for 2015, and has maintained a steadfast silence, for the most part, throughout the last years’ turmoil.

She said that she doesn’t know if the Rohingya are entitled to Burmese citizenship or not, and has been reluctant to condemn violence, But she did however, last week, finally speak out – against a move by the local government in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya live, to limit Rohingya to two children per family: population control with a sectarian and racist slant that Aung San Suu Kyi described as discrimination.

– For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Rangoon

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