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Islamophobia and the fear of ‘the other’ in Myanmar

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Racial tensions are coming to a head in Myanmar between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Al Jazeera

Chiang Mai, Thailand – The mob that set upon and killed a group of Muslims riding a bus through western Myanmar on June 3 displayed a depravity normally the hallmark of the country’s military. News reports that emerged in the wake of the incident, allegedly in response to the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim men days before, described the ten victims of a frenzied beating being urinated upon before the bus was set ablaze.

Comments that circulated the internet in the wake of the massacre were almost as shocking. “Killing Kalars is good!” one person said, using the pejorative slur that has become a popular and casual way of referring to Muslims of South Asian decent (one that state media also regularly employs). It mattered little that the men accused of the rape had already been arrested.

“Medicins San Frontieres describes [the Rohingya] as being among the world minority groups ‘most in danger of extinction’.”

The attack was a rare incident; the reactions suggest however that heightened levels of resentment towards the presence of Muslims in Myanmar society exist on a much wider scale. This animosity is shared by senior figures in the government – current representative to the UN, Ye Myint Aung, once described the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Arakan state who are singled out for particularly savage treatment, as “ugly as ogres”, while since 1982 the government has denied them citizenship, claiming they are “illegal Bengali immigrants”. Persecution of the group has been so protracted and debased that Medicins San Frontieres describes them as being among the world minority groups “most in danger of extinction”.

While Myanmar’s myriad ethnic groups have all suffered egregious treatment at the hands of the military government, which has sought to bring the country “under one flag”, the fear of Muslims is a particular one. On the website of The Voice journal, which issued an apology after being bombarded with threats following its coverage of the massacre, one visitor wrote: “We should either kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist”.

The ‘other’

Treatment of Muslims as the ‘other’ persists despite the country’s push to embrace the outside world and everything it offers. There is something of a contradiction then in the population’s desire to become global players, which will see it interacting far more with non-Myanmar, non-Buddhist ethnicities. In Arakan state, where tension between Buddhists and Muslims often spills over into violence, hypocrisy is also evident in attempts by Arakanese to goad public opinion against the Rohingya in the name of “nationalism”. These are the same Arakanese who, ironically, regularly accuse the government of attempting to aggressively assimilate Arakanese into the Burman way of life.

“A Rohingya couple must apply well in advance before attempting to wed; the frequent denial by authorities, as well as a strict two-child policy… has led rights groups to accuse the government of attempting to slowly wipe out the population.”

Such is the treatment of Rohingya that up to 300,000 now reside in Bangladesh, which in turn sees them as illegal immigrants from Myanmar and denies them citizenship. They are the epitome of stateless, and spend their lives in unofficial camps where conditions are notoriously poor (only 28,000 are registered by the UN). Their disaffection has made them ripe for Islamic militant groups and human traffickers. Many attempt the perilous sea journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia and beyond to find work – in December last year, a boatload of more than 60 who ran into trouble off the coast of southern Myanmar were detained by Myanmar police, ironically on immigration charges.

Accusations that the government has sought to dilute, or “Burmanise”, Myanmar’s 135 distinct ethnic groups have existed for decades, and factor in the apparently institutional practice of rape of ethnic women by Myanmar troops, as well as the forced learning of the Myanmar language in ethnic schools.

In Northern Arakan state, where the majority of Rohingya reside, and where foreigners are barred from entering, the practice is effectively official: government policy stipulates that Rohingya babies born out of wedlock be placed on blacklists that bar them from attending school and later marrying. A Rohingya couple must apply well in advance before attempting to wed; the frequent denial by authorities, as well as a strict two-child policy reserved only for Rohingya, has led rights groups to accuse the government of attempting to slowly wipe out the population.

Rohingyas facing brunt of Bangladesh-Myanmar border tension

Racism or religious discrimination?

Naypyidaw uses the premise of “illegal migration management” and “control on population growth” to justify the persecution of this group. The “immigrant” label however does not match with evidence that modern-era Muslim political participation in Arakan state goes back to the 1930s, while the Arakanese city of Mrauk U, in its zenith in the 17th century a key trading hub in Asia, was ruled by Muslim sultans.

Nor is this a consistent measure, given the millions of Chinese that have migrated to Myanmar in recent decades to become powerful players in the economy. Is there an issue then with the often darker skin of Muslim groups in Myanmar, or that their religion conflicts with Buddhism?

Few seem to know, but one major cause for concern is that this hostility exists across the entire spectrum of Myanmar politics. The post-colonial civilian government of U Nu in the early 1950s expelled the Burma Muslim Congress and made Buddhism the state religion; then came Myanmar’s first dictator, Ne Win, who used anti-Muslim propaganda to powerful effect during the mass expulsion of Indians in the 1960s. He branded the tens of thousands brought in for work by the British as colonial stooges, and exploited the subsequent anti-Islam sentiment to ban all Muslims from the army. The same key issue that fuelled the infamous anti-Chinese riots of the late 1960s and 1970s – that Myanmar were aggrieved at jobs going to foreigners – had also driven the anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots in 1930 and 1938.

Read more here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/06/2012610134755390151.html

Posted by on June 14, 2012. Filed under Asia,Bangladesh,Burma,Crime,Crisis,Hate Crime,Human Rights,Human values,Interfaith tolerance,Islam,Islamophobia,Myanmar. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.