Some Buddhist citizens of Myanmar are wary of certain Islamic practices and thus fearful of their Muslim counterparts.
By Sirisha Veera, Edited by Isabel Yeo
As of September, 214 villages in the Rakhine state of Myanmar had been destroyed by the ongoing conflict. A million of the Rakhine’s Rohingya inhabitants have fled to neighbouring countries. While a United Nations official has dubbed the violence in the Rakhine as a “textbook example of Ethnic cleansing,” the government and state media have blamed the conflict on the Rohingyas and denounced them as “extremist terrorists”.
Armed Rohingya groups emerged in response to poor treatment by the government.
For years, the government refused to consider the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. Rights such as access to health services or even travel and marriage, continue to be restricted. In response to years of ill-treatment and strong military presence in the Rakhine, some disgruntled Rohingya established the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2013.
Noor Alam, a 25-year-old insurgent, said “This fight is not just about my fate or my family’s fate. It’s a matter of the existence of all Rohingya. If we have to sacrifice ourselves for our children to live peacefully, then it is worth it”.
Armed with simple weapons and basic IEDs (improvised explosive devices), ARSA has since led a disorganised resistance against the government in the Rakhine. Myanmar’s intelligence services have estimated ARSA to have approximately 600 members, though the military has argued that the number is closer to a thousand.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the government blame Rohingyas
While ARSA has contributed to the ongoing violence in the Rakhine, it was disingenuous for the Myanmar government to portray all Rohingya as armed insurgents. Even State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi was complicit in this portrayal.
“That kind of fake information was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” said Aung San Suu Kyi after international media reported on the plight of the Rohingya.
While the government denied extensive military violence against the Rohingyas, media outlets recorded acts of brutality by Myanmar’s military. In the last few months, military officials torched numerous villages, causing the widespread displacement of the Rohingya. The army had recently prevented foreigners from entering the Rakhine region, making it difficult for international aid to reach the Rohingyas.
A portion of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority has supported the military’s campaigns against the Rohingya.
In a survey involving 500 Myanmarese, 85% indicated that they disliked Muslims because they believed that Muslim citizens harboured intentions of turning Myanmar into an Islamic State. Certain Buddhist factions view specific Islamic practices as threatening to Buddhism.
U Wirathu the founder the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, said,”their law requires Buddhist women who marry into their religion must convert (to Islam)……they take many wives, and they have many children. And when their population grows they threaten us.”
“They are expanding. They produce so many kids, so many children,” said another citizen, Tin Win. Tin Win used to reside in Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine. He also explained that he received warnings from the Rakhine Buddhists that they were dangerous to the native population.
As a result of these fears and suspicions, some Buddhists living in and out of the Rakhine are unlikely to be sympathetic to the Rohingya, despite being aware of their mistreatment by the military. Nonetheless, some see this issue as a political one, couched under the guise of religion.
“It’s all political. There are no problems between the religious communities themselves. But it has been influenced by political groups,” said U Wie Douktah.
Aung San Suu Kyi is in an awkward position
This distrust between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar has further complicated the peace-making process. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to manage the concerns of the various communities as well as the expectations of the international community. The powerful Tatmadaw’s engagement in internal conflict has also made it difficult for Suu Kyi to take a firm stand for the Rohingyas.
“Myanmar also has Buddhist preachers of hate, nationalists and fundamentalists – and these currently have considerable influence on public opinion. That makes Aung San Suu Kyi’s job harder: the majority of the country would be against her if she were to step in for the north,” explained Swiss ambassador Mr Paul Seger.
While the peace-making process is undoubtedly tricky, Suu Kyi still needs to find a solution fast
Analysts have suggested that international extremist groups would attempt to enter the Rakhine and involve themselves in the conflict. “The best way to prevent this from escalating is to protect the rights of the civilian population. Myanmar is doing the exact opposite,” said Matthew Smith, the director of Fortify Rights.
The government needs to take up the responsibility of engaging peace-talks between the Buddhist and the Muslim communities in the country to reduce mutual suspicion and hostility. Mutual understanding would prevent extremist or insurgent groups from inciting violence. The government would also be able to extend the Rohingya similar rights without fear of protests from the Buddhist majority.
In a recent televised speech, Aung San Suu Kyi asserted that all Rohingyas who had fled the country could return to Myanmar. While that was a heartening move, she first needs to ensure that the Rohingya do not return to a society that views all of them as “extremist terrorists”.