Described as ‘the most persecuted group on earth’, the Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority living in Rakhine state in north-western Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh. Their plight includes discrimination and sectarian violence, both of which are inflamed by native Burmese and Buddhist nationalism. Around 800,000 Rohingya are not recognized as Burmese citizens but seen as immigrants from Bangladesh, and as such are denied basic civil rights. Living conditions are so dire that many have fled by boat to neighboring countries, risking their lives in the process. They face discrimination from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, and sometimes its clergy, and are seen as a threat to Myanmar and its religion: Buddhism.
In June 2012, the conflict was rekindled in Rakhine state between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities, after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed, allegedly by Rohingya men. In response, rioting and violence spread, and the Rohingya bared the heaviest brunt with many killed and their properties destroyed. This wave of violence led to the displacement of over 100,000 people and left the majority of the Muslim population in a dismal situation.
The Rohingya are one of the largest groups facing a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and the root of the issue is the relationship between Myanmar’s Muslim minority and its Buddhist majority.
THE ISLAMIC 'THREAT' TO THE BUDDHIST MOTHERLAND
Theravada Buddhists (the branch of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar) have historically believed that the health of the religion and strength of the state were interconnected and that the protection of the Burmese state requires a strong Buddhist religion as its backbone. Therefore, for many Buddhists, the presence of a relatively large population of Muslims in the country represents a threat to both Buddhism and to the state.
Members of the Buddhist clergy have been particularly active in, and have even led, many anti-Muslim demonstrations and movements. This religious involvement in state politics has an historical precedence. In ancient Burmese kingdoms, the monarchy and the Buddhist monastic community (the Sangha) were closely linked. After a period of religious retreat from the political arena, the Buddhist clergy has reemerged as a force in Burmese politics. In 2012, following Muslim-Buddhist clashes, Buddhist monks lobbied the government and succeeded in passing four bills on interfaith marriage, monogamy, religious conversion and population control, all of which were designed to control and restrict Muslim encroachment on the Burmese Buddhist society.
The current violence against Muslim Rohingya in Burma can, in many ways, be explained by a general demonization of the Muslim population, especially in Rakhine state where they represent a third of the population. Muslims are seen by protest leaders as extremists who want to take over Buddhist Myanmar by marrying and converting Buddhist women. Further, because of their past as successful traders, many Buddhists view the Rohingya as a foreign drain on domestic economic opportunity who make money off Burmese Buddhists. They point to regional examples of how Islam has pushed out Buddhism and how only small parts of Asia remain Buddhist in the face of Islam’s growth. They specifically refer to Indonesia and Afghanistan — formerly Buddhist areas — but which are now Muslim countries. As monks are highly respected in the Burmese community, many people believe these statements, adding fuel to already fiery relations.
THE EMERGENCE OF NATIONALIST GROUPS
In recent years, Myanmar has seen the emergence of Buddhist nationalist movements — led by members of the monastic community — which are overtly anti-Muslim.
The two most famous examples are the 969 Movement and the MaBaTha. The 969 movement is a loose grouping of monks and laypeople who fear the ethnic and religious Muslim ‘encroachment’ on the Burmese Buddhist population. They also believe that Islamic values represent the antithesis of Buddhism, particularly perceived attitudes to women. The name ‘969’ refers to a Buddhist numerological symbolism that relates to the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community). These three symbols are seen as the triple gems and are considered a symbolic counter to the number 786, a numerical representation of Islam in some Asian nations. The number 786 often appears on the front of shops or restaurants which offer halal food and are run by Muslims. In response, the 969 movement distributed stickers for their followers to designate businesses as Buddhist-owned and encouraged them to buy Buddhist. This example of discrimination, among many others, is part of the nationalist plan to stifle and then push out the Muslim population of Myanmar.
While the 969 is decentralized and relatively leaderless, the MaBaTha is more organized and has targeted political strategies. Its unabbreviated name is the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion. In its full Burmese name, it is easy to see how the founding members (monks from Mandalay) have linked Burmese ethnic, racial and national identity to Buddhism. They have ties to political parties and, since the banning of 969 in 2013, are at the forefront of Burmese nationalism. The MaBaTha is a discriminatory group, which often spreads virulent anti-Muslim messages while reinforcing a notion of a Buddhist nation.
DEMOCRATIZATION: A NEW CHANNEL TO VOICE GRIEVANCES IN RAKHINE STATE
Now that the country is democratizing, the military Junta’s control over the state’s political landscape is slowly being diluted, and a degree of this power is now redistributed via the voting booths. This change in the political dynamic makes Muslims in Rakhine state an electoral threat and has fuelled Buddhist nationalism. During total military rule, which officially ended in 2012 with the election of the first civilian government since 1962, tension between Muslims and Buddhists was relatively low. That can be partly explained by the lack of political choice. Since the beginning of this democratic process, however, tension in Rakhine state between two ethnic minorities — the Rakhine and the Rohingya — has grown.
The democratic transition now allows the communities to voice their grievances through the electoral process. The Rakhine Buddhist, who already suffered as a minority under the military government, are afraid to become a minority in their own state and see the Muslim population (1/3 of the state) as a demographic threat. Other concerns include a loss of culture and language, as well as a threat to the local economy. Rakhine Buddhists see most of the nation’s economy in the hands of the Burman ethnic majority, yet it seems to them like more and more small businesses are run by Muslims. Finally, many Buddhist Rakhine and Burmans consider Muslims to be a security threat, viewed mainly through the lens of the global war on terror. These fears have contributed to the violence in recent years.
Buddhist nationalism made the headlines again recently when people demonstrated in Mandalay over the use of the term ‘Rohingya’. Nationalists, led by monks, believe the Rohingya should be called ‘Bengalis’ as they originally come from, and are believed to belong in, the Bengal region, now Bangladesh. At state level, not much has been done to help the Rohingya or rein in the anti-Muslim sentiment but it is hoped that the newly-elected NLD will help improve the situation, even if it must be cautious in order to satisfy both its Buddhist electorate and a strong military establishment.
While thousands of Burmese people are in need of humanitarian assistance because of war and natural disasters, in Myanmar, nationalism and discrimination are also the cause of a real and severe humanitarian crisis faced by hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
Written by Francois De Nicolay.