It was not too long ago that we witnessed the grisly massacre of minority Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan (Rakhine) state of Myanmar (Burma). Many of the western observers who grew up seeing the smiling face of Dalai Lama were simply shocked to see armed Buddhist monks participating in that ethnic cleansing of the unarmed Rohingya Muslims. Not only had the monks participated in those violent criminal acts with their fellow Buddhist Rakhine zealots terrorizing the minority Muslims of the western frontier state but they were also guilty of providing the very rationale – a criminal one – for such inhuman crimes against the members of a non-Buddhist faith who were different ethnically, culturally and religiously.
In that pogrom, while we may never know the exact casualty figure because of government complicity in the tragedy – Rohingyas probably died in thousands, and hundreds remain unaccounted for even after nine months. With international pressure, and worldwide condemnation, while that pogrom of last year (May-October, 2012) against the minority Rohingyas has stopped, albeit temporarily, there were many ominous signs for any keen observer to predict of a troubling future awaiting the non-Buddhists living inside Myanmar.
The Buddhist monks in Myanmar with very few exceptions have essentially become not only the collaborators of the quasi-military regime that runs the country but also the vanguards of a new Myanmarism in which people who are different are increasingly marginalized and/or dehumanized. Buddhist monks, dependent on begging and handouts, have had always thrived on donations and gifts made by others, esp. the rich patrons and Buddhist kings. That benevolent role is now filled in by the government. (As the Muslim and Hindu lands are confiscated, their homes and shops, religious centers, shrines and mosques burnt down or razed to the ground often times Buddhist pagodas are built on such confiscated or evicted and destroyed places.) The level of collaboration runs so deep that when last year the so-called reform minded President Thein Sein called for expelling the Rohingyas to a third country and that the UN should take charge of them, it was the Buddhist monks who were at the forefront of the processions demanding such expulsion. They have hitherto called upon the government to creating apartheid zones for the Muslim minorities, away from the Buddhist majority people, let alone demanding the exclusion of Muslims from jobs, and even enacting laws that prohibit selling to and buying from Muslims. It is an all-out apartheid system that they have been promoting against the much-discriminated and despised non-Buddhist minorities in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
As a result, in recent months tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have become the ‘boat people’ of the Southeast Asia braving the scorching sun and tumultuous seas hoping to find a place under the sun in this vast planet of ours to live without being slaughtered like lambs in the slaughterhouse of Myanmar. Hundreds have died and many have ended up in prisons. The Christian-majority Kachin state to the north is also bleeding because of marauding attacks from the Myanmar government forces there. Nearly a quarter million internally displaced persons of the Christian and Muslim faiths now live in sub-human conditions in Kachin and Rakhine states, respectively. Buddhist monks and politicians have also barred necessary relief items from reaching the intended victims.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, recently told the U.N. Human Rights Council that rights violations linked to the Kachin conflict-along with ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in western Burma-remain unresolved in Myanmar. “While the process of reform is continuing in the right direction, there are significant human rights shortcomings that remain unaddressed, such as discrimination against the Rohingya in Rakhine state and the ongoing human rights violations in relation to the conflict in Kachin state,” said Quintana, who visited Burma last month.
Obviously, Buddhism has failed and is failing miserably or so it seems when it comes to enlightening the savage and non-enlightened souls amongst its own people inside Myanmar. The word ‘non-violence’ has lost its meaning in Myanmar. One only has to be different, the ‘other’ people – racially or religiously – to see the ugly side of such pogroms, which have sadly become the norms and not exceptions.
So, it was not a question of why but when we would be revisited by a new violence. As the recent events in Meikhtila, a town roughly 80 miles north of the capital Naypyidaw, showed Myanmar is increasingly becoming difficult and almost impossible for non-Buddhists to live in this once multi-racial and multi-religious country.
Last Wednesday, a heated argument between a Muslim gold shop owner in Meikhtila and his Buddhist customers erupted, which spiraled into a street brawl. Soon thereafter Buddhist mobs roamed the streets with sticks and swords and set Muslim buildings ablaze. Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside Meiktila, as mobs of Buddhists, some led by monks, continued a three-day rampage through Muslim areas. Several mosques were burned down. Hundreds of Muslim homes were ransacked first and then set on fire.
According to the New York Times (NYT), witnesses reached by phone said security forces did little to stop the violence. “Mobs were destroying buildings and killing people in cold blood,” said U Nyan Lynn, a former political prisoner who witnessed what he described as massacres. “Nobody stopped them – I saw hundreds of riot police there.”
“Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs,” writes Thomas Fuller of the NYT.
“I can’t handle what I saw there,” said Daw Nilar Thein, a human rights activist. She described the violence as anarchic and unspeakable.
One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”
On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card. “We are trying to leave the town,” Mr. Khin Maung Win said by telephone. “They are now after journalists, too.”
Just as in Arakan the past year, those Buddhists behind the violence in Meiktila are trying to stop images of the destruction from getting out.
The exact numbers of those killed and injured since Wednesday in Meikhtila are still unknown, but the numbers may reach more than 100.
Whatever the figure, the culture of impunity surrounding ethnic violence must end in Myanmar. Who would have thought that a failed sales negotiation in a jewelry shop would trigger a religious riot? The whole episode smells of the Hitler-era Nazism in which Jewish homes and businesses were targeted by his dreaded SS. In Myanmar’s context, the Buddhist monks and their inspired zealots within the Buddhist population are increasingly behaving like those criminal SS thugs of the Nazi era. It is, thus, not difficult to understand why in such pre-planned sinister riots the security forces behave more as spectators — if they, of course, choose not to join the Buddhist mob — than as law enforcing government agents.
As I have maintained before, these kinds of targeted violence against Muslims and other religious minorities do enjoy wider popular support within this Buddhist-majority apartheid state and are endorsed from the top echelon in politics. Shamelessly, therefore, the lawmakers like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have remained silent on how to the end ethnic violence racking the country in recent months.
Like many human rights advocates and activists, Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK has condemned such sinister silence. Recently he said, “Staying silent is clearly not working, because in that vacuum, those who are inciting more violence are free to operate when they need to be challenged and tackled head on.” “There needs to be a change of approach not just from Suu Kyi,”” he says, “but from all the political and religious leaders in the country to acknowledge that there is this growing anti-Muslim feeling in the country.”
The Euro-Burma Office, a respected Brussels-based advocacy group, warned on Friday of a “Rwandan-like genocide” of Myanmar’s Muslims.
As we have noticed previously with the Rakhine state, President Thein Sein has issued a state of emergency on Friday. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper has urged the public to expose those who led and attempted to instigate.
Muslims have been put in Meiktila’s sports stadium, where food and water are scarce. Photographs showed frightened-looking people rushing to the stadium, clutching belongings and carrying their children and the elderly, amid jeering Buddhist crowds.
The state of emergency is a half-hearted reactive measure that will not prevent Muslims and other vulnerable minorities from becoming objects of ethnic cleansing and religious riots in the future.
“Governments are meant to guarantee rights, ensure that people are treated equally before the law, that nondiscrimination is the rule of the land, and that minorities have their rights protected,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “After seeing this [violence in Meikhtila], would anyone be confident in saying that the government is doing a good job?”
Surely not! But with western appetite for Myanmar’s natural resources on the rise, human rights have taken a back seat. And thus, none of the veto-wielding countries are stopping this extermination campaign against the Muslims of Myanmar, and punishing the regime for its monumental failure, or worse yet collusion, to safeguarding their lives and properties. In their failure, the notion of Buddhists, especially monks, rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods with weapons is becoming a recurring phenomenon. And this specter must stop not only for the health of Buddhism but also for greater good of humanity.
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book – Devotional Stories – is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.