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Despite Democracy, Myanmar’s Muslim Minority Still Suffering

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 27, 2013

A 969 shirt is seen among National League for Democracy party shirts and Aung San Suu Kyi shirts at a shop on a street side in Yangon on April 27, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters) A 969 shirt is seen among National League for Democracy party shirts and Aung San Suu Kyi shirts at a shop on a street side in Yangon on April 27, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

As Myanmar opens up, at least 100,000 Muslims have been made homeless in the past two years by violent attacks, and hundreds if not thousands have been killed, along with a much smaller number of Buddhists. Left unchecked, rising ethnic hatred and increasing attacks could push the country into a terrible period of ethnic cleansing, similar to what happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s.

Myanmarhas had a long history of xenophobia and inter-ethnic tensions, exacerbated by the army’s oppressive five-decade rule over the country. Outside North Korea, Myanmar was until 2010 probably the most closed nation in the world. In that year, the army began a transition to a civilian government, holding elections that helped create a civilian parliament and formally renouncing its control of the presidency.

Still, Myanmar has witnessed enormous change in the past three years and, whatever his past, President Thein Sein has been genuinely interested in promoting reform. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept last year’s by-elections, the first truly fair elections in two decades. Parliament has become more than just a rubber stamp for the army and in the 2015 elections the NLD may well win a majority, which could theoretically put them in a position to run the country.

But this rapid shift has, as in other former autocratic and diverse states, also unleashed severe tensions. The inter-religious violence began last year in Rakhine State, near the border with Bangladesh. The exact cause of the fighting remains unclear, but after rumors spread that several Muslim men had attacked Buddhist women, crowds of Buddhists began attacking areas of the state populated by Muslim Rohingya.

Now the Myanmar government faces far broader unrest, killings that threaten to tear the country apart and completely undermine the recent economic and political reforms.

Emboldened by the lack of action taken against marauders last year, Buddhist extremists have launched a national anti-Muslim campaign, led by nationalist monks. The campaign, called the 969 Movement (the name comes from Buddhist numerology), calls on Buddhists to avoid Muslim shops and properties and tacitly encourages evictions and even attacks. The movement’s followers encourage Buddhist shop-owners to put 969 stickers on their stores, identifying them as Buddhist-run, and have at times reportedly attacked Buddhist merchants for doing business with Muslims. One 969 leader, nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, has given numerous interviews calling for the expulsion of Muslims from the country or worse. When he gives sermons, Wirathu now draws thousands of followers, like a nationalist rock star. In a much-covered speech in February, Wirathu told followers: “Once these evil Muslims have control, they will not let us practice our religion … If you buy from Muslim shops, your money doesn’t just stop there. It will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion.” Some liberal commentators have compared the movement to neo-Nazis, and in March militant monks in the town of Meiktila carried swords and knives, watching over Muslims being force-marched out of the area.

Violence has exploded across the country. Mobs of Buddhists, some with ties to the 969 Movement, have struck in the towns of Meiktila, Nay Pyi Taw, Bago and now outside Yangon, the largest city. Earlier this year in Meiktila, groups of men burnt Muslims’ homes and then attacked survivors, killing at least 40 people, including schoolchildren. Wirathu publicly praised these actions. Many of the mobs also appear to have ties to several long-standing paramilitary organizations that previously worked with the army to enforce military rule, according to several Myanmar rights activists. Police provide protection for U Wirathu as he travels, as if he were a state leader.
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