Source: The Daily Beast
Muslims from an obscure ethnic group in western Burma have become targets of vicious Buddhist mob attacks. Brendan Brady reports from Rakhine state on the increasing violence.
As mobs wielding torches and machetes rampaged through his neighborhood, Abdul had a strangely candid encounter with one assailant. Recognizing the man as his long-time neighbor—the same man who had once showed great affection towards Abdul’s children—Abdul yelled to his would-be executioner: “‘Why are you doing this?’ He told me, ‘Sorry, I’m fighting for my people.’” Abdul, whose full name is withheld to protect his identity, is a Muslim from the Rohingya ethnic group and his attacker, a Buddhist. Abdul kept him and other members of the mob at bay by throwing his valuables out of his window onto the street. As they were distracted collecting the cash and jewelry, another group of Buddhists from his street approached his house from the rear. They, too, were armed but they had come to escort Abdul and his family out of the besieged neighborhood. “They saved our lives.”
The conflict in western Burma’s Rakhine State erupted last June, when reports spread that a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Rohingya men. Shortly after, a mob of Buddhists exacted retribution by pulling over a bus carrying Muslims and beating 10 passengers to death. The incidents ignited sectarian violence throughout the state. Nearly 200 were killed and many more injured, and some 10,000 homes were destroyed. The vast majority of the estimated 140,000 displaced were Rohingyas, and a year after their violent upheaval they continue to languish in squalid temporary encampments.
In recent months, the violence spread to include attacks on Muslim communities in other parts of the country. In March, provoked by a small dispute in a Muslim-owned gold shop, a Buddhist mob tore through a town in central Burma, killing over 40 people, burning mosques and Muslim homes, and displacing thousands. In May, 1,200 Muslims in the country’s northeast fled from their homes when throngs of armed Buddhists mobilized after unconfirmed reports that a Muslim man killed a Buddhist woman in the area.
The turmoil carries worrying implications for national reconciliation and the sustainability of democratic reforms in Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is in the first stages of transitioning from military to civilian rule. Since independence, in 1948, Burma’s government has been in alternately hot and cold conflicts with myriad ethnic minority groups in the country’s border regions. The xenophobic generals who seized power by coup in 1962 justified their iron-fisted rule as necessary to hold together a fractured country. The junta stepped down in 2011 and Burma’s new semi-civilian government has carried out surprisingly comprehensive reforms: loosening controls on political association, civil society and the press, as well as releasing hundreds of political prisoners. But fresh sectarian violence serves as fodder to the army’s insistence on remaining a backstop to the fragile civilian government and maintaining ultimate authority. It also raises questions about how far democratic reforms will extend to minorities.
Regarded in many quarters as the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia, the Rohingya live in the borderlands between Burma and Bangladesh but are officially a stateless people. There are around a million Rohingya in Burma today. Their exact roots are debated but many likely settled in Burma in the 19th century, having migrated from modern-day Bangladesh into the newly-acquired lands of the British empire. Today, the Rohingya, along with a few other maligned minorities, are excluded from the 135 ethnic groups Burma’s government recognizes as citizens. Many Burmese say the Rohingya should “go back” to Bangladesh, whose government also disavows the Rohingya. Among other consequences of apartheid policies against them, the Rohingya need special permission to travel and marry and face severe discrimination in access to employment, education, and medical care.
Last year’s violence unveiled particularly chilling dimensions of racial and religious hatred toward the Rohingya. When the wife of Mohamed Salam was found dead floating in a river, her body carried a sinister message. She was abducted along with two of her children in June, and Salam was later told by sympathetic Buddhists how they had died. According to them, her captors said her breasts gave milk to Muslim babies and her womb gave birth to future generations of Muslims. Her breasts were then hacked off and her genitalia mutilated with sharpened bamboo. Her teenage son was tethered to a motorbike and dragged across a rocky road. Salam would not elaborate on how his daughter met her end. Today, he cares for his remaining 5-year-old boy in a camp for displaced people outside of Sittwe, the state capital, and the prospect of receiving justice is even more illusory than his chances of returning to his home and job.
Human Rights Watch alleges last year’s bloodshed amounted to ethnic cleansing. In a detailed report released in April, the international rights monitor said state security forces did more to facilitate than to prevent abuses against the Rohingya, and sometimes even directly participated in atrocities. The group profiled one particularly brutal episode, last October, in which 70 Rohingyas, including 28 children, were left easy prey for a Buddhist mob to butcher after local riot police disarmed the Rohingya of rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves. The report said local Buddhist politicians and monks publicly demonized the Rohingya—describing them as a threat to Burmese society and encouraging their removal from the state—“in full view” of authorities, “who raised no concerns.” Burmese rights groups have criticized Human Rights Watch’s assessment as one-sided, and instead described the violence as “communal.”