Ethno-religious strife in Myanmar continues

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rohingya noThe leader of an anti-Muslim, nationalist political movement in Myanmar narrowly dodged an assassination attempt July 26 when a bomb went off near him wounding five members of his entourage. The controversial Buddhist cleric, named Ashin Wirathu, said that the attack came soon after he received a death threat from a prominent Muslim religious leader.

Wirathu is head of the 969 movement (named for tenets of Buddhism), which has recently led a campaign to pass legislation that would outlaw marriage between Buddhists and Muslims, and prevent Buddhists converting to Islam. The 969 movement also calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and to shun Muslims as customers. Wirathu’s portrait appeared on the July cover of Time Magazine’s Asia edition, with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror: How Militant Monks are Fueling Anti-Muslim Violence in Asia.”

Myanmar has had a significant Muslim minority for a thousand years. A slow but steady stream of Muslims migrated to Burma (present-day Myanmar) over the centuries from all over the Asian continent. These immigrants intermarried with the native population and enjoyed a social status roughly equivalent to most other ethnic groups. Myanmar’s modern day Hindus are the descendants of many of these early Muslim immigrants.

But the Muslim population of Burma increased dramatically during British colonial rule, between 1824 and 1948. During that time, waves of Muslim immigrants poured into Burma from other parts of the British empire, particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These immigrants mostly settled close to the Burmese border with India, in a region called Rohang. Thus this ethnic group has been referred to as “Rohingya Muslims” since at least the 1950’s.

Rohang is an important region of Myanmar, and it has been inhabited from ancient times by an indigenous Buddhist population. The Buddhist Rohang community has its own language and a unique culture based firmly on Buddhist principles. As this culture is profoundly different from the immigrant Muslim culture, there was tension and conflict between these two groups from the very beginning. The tension boiled over into armed conflict repeatedly in the 20th century, including a major episode during the Second World War when tens of thousands of people were killed on both sides.

Another spate of violence broke out in 2012 after reports circulated in May of that year that a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Rohingya Muslim men. These reports prompted a group of Buddhists to board a bus filled with Muslims and kill 10 of the passengers. After that riots erupted throughout the region, with armed mobs from both sides marauding through towns and villages burning shops, homes, and places of worship.

Since that early summer of rioting, many Rohang towns and cities, such as the port-city of Sittwe, have forcibly expelled their Muslim populations. Rohingya Muslims have been forced to choose between living in squalid refugee camps and leaving the country. There is no end in sight to this ethno-religious conflict, and it could spill over across the region.

The latest eruption was the protest of hardline Buddhists against the granting of a license to Qatar’s mobile phone company Ooredoo in Myanmar, with monks and other Buddhists in the country saying that they are not going to use a service provided by a company from a Muslim country.

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

The leader of an anti-Muslim, nationalist political movement in Myanmar narrowly dodged an assassination attempt July 26 when a bomb went off near him wounding five members of his entourage. The controversial Buddhist cleric, named Ashin Wirathu, said that the attack came soon after he received a death threat from a prominent Muslim religious leader.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

rohingya noThe leader of an anti-Muslim, nationalist political movement in Myanmar narrowly dodged an assassination attempt July 26 when a bomb went off near him wounding five members of his entourage. The controversial Buddhist cleric, named Ashin Wirathu, said that the attack came soon after he received a death threat from a prominent Muslim religious leader.

Wirathu is head of the 969 movement (named for tenets of Buddhism), which has recently led a campaign to pass legislation that would outlaw marriage between Buddhists and Muslims, and prevent Buddhists converting to Islam. The 969 movement also calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and to shun Muslims as customers. Wirathu’s portrait appeared on the July cover of Time Magazine’s Asia edition, with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror: How Militant Monks are Fueling Anti-Muslim Violence in Asia.”

Myanmar has had a significant Muslim minority for a thousand years. A slow but steady stream of Muslims migrated to Burma (present-day Myanmar) over the centuries from all over the Asian continent. These immigrants intermarried with the native population and enjoyed a social status roughly equivalent to most other ethnic groups. Myanmar’s modern day Hindus are the descendants of many of these early Muslim immigrants.

But the Muslim population of Burma increased dramatically during British colonial rule, between 1824 and 1948. During that time, waves of Muslim immigrants poured into Burma from other parts of the British empire, particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These immigrants mostly settled close to the Burmese border with India, in a region called Rohang. Thus this ethnic group has been referred to as “Rohingya Muslims” since at least the 1950’s.

Rohang is an important region of Myanmar, and it has been inhabited from ancient times by an indigenous Buddhist population. The Buddhist Rohang community has its own language and a unique culture based firmly on Buddhist principles. As this culture is profoundly different from the immigrant Muslim culture, there was tension and conflict between these two groups from the very beginning. The tension boiled over into armed conflict repeatedly in the 20th century, including a major episode during the Second World War when tens of thousands of people were killed on both sides.

Another spate of violence broke out in 2012 after reports circulated in May of that year that a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Rohingya Muslim men. These reports prompted a group of Buddhists to board a bus filled with Muslims and kill 10 of the passengers. After that riots erupted throughout the region, with armed mobs from both sides marauding through towns and villages burning shops, homes, and places of worship.

Since that early summer of rioting, many Rohang towns and cities, such as the port-city of Sittwe, have forcibly expelled their Muslim populations. Rohingya Muslims have been forced to choose between living in squalid refugee camps and leaving the country. There is no end in sight to this ethno-religious conflict, and it could spill over across the region.

The latest eruption was the protest of hardline Buddhists against the granting of a license to Qatar’s mobile phone company Ooredoo in Myanmar, with monks and other Buddhists in the country saying that they are not going to use a service provided by a company from a Muslim country.

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