Not the results one would expect from an argument started in a gold shop. Not unless one knew that the owners of the shop were Muslim and the customers were Buddhist, and the gold shop is located in a small town in Burma, a country whose government has a disturbing history of promoting Islamophobia and Buddhist Nationalism. During the years of military rule, General Ne Win conducted numerous pogroms against the Rohingya Muslims and deported hundreds of thousands of Indian Muslims. For the past few decades, the army has attacked mosques in a deliberate attempt to eradicate non-Buddhist elements in Burma.
In June last year in Arakan/Rakhine State, violence broke out between the Rakhine Buddhist community and the Muslim Rohingya community. To date, thousands of Rohingya have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The Rohingya are often forced to leave the country on rickety boats heading to surrounding nations where it’s probable that they will be denied asylum.
In Human Rights Watch’s recently released report “All You Can Do is Pray”, Burmese government officials, along with community leaders and Buddhist monks, are accused of taking a prominent role in organizing the campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya people. The report was released the same day that the European Union lifted all remaining sanctions except an arms embargo against Burma to reward the country for its “progress”. However, as HRW’s report shows, the government does not deserve to be rewarded for its “progress” when it has played an instrumental role in an ethnic cleansing campaign in which there are documented instances of mass graves and Rohingya children being hacked to death. The government has done nothing to curb the blatant racism against the Rohingya and continues to deny them citizenship. After actively participating in the violence against the Rohingya and forcing them to flee their homes, the government has continued its campaign of ethnic cleansing by denying aid to the displaced Rohingya and restricting their movement.
In the past month, the spread of militant Islamophobia beyond the borders of Arakan/Rakhine state has provided further evidence of the government’s continued human rights violations. The latest outbreak of anti-Muslim violence started on March 20th in the town of Meiktila, in central Burma. After spreading throughout central Burma, the violence displaced a total of 12,000 people, destroyed more than 1,300 buildings in Mandalay Division, and left more than 40 people dead. Images of burned mosques circulated around the news for weeks. Nationalist Buddhist monks were reported to be wandering the streets armed with swords and machetes. The news showed videos in which charred bodies of the victims lie in the streets as the police stand by doing nothing.
The brutal efficiency with which mobs attacked Muslims shows that this is not an isolated incident of communal violence. Rather, the conflict stems from decades-long government-sponsored propaganda and violence against Muslims. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Burma, released a statement which said that he had “received reports of State involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs. This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the State or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”
Given the government’s prominent anti-Muslim stance, it is not surprising that a small but vocal group of nationalist Buddhist monks have been allowed to carry out anti-Muslim campaigns. The most recent example is the 969 Campaign, pioneered by a popular monk from Mandalay named U Wirathu, which calls for complete segregation of Buddhists and Muslims. The campaign encourages Buddhist shopkeepers to paste the numbers 969 on their storefronts, which is a message to all Muslims that they aren’t allowed there. Wirathu called on Buddhists to stop going to Muslim shops, stating “[the money] will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion.”
The 969 campaign is reminiscent of pre-WWII Germany where Jews were forced to wear the Star of David and Jewish shops were boycotted. Such a comparison is not made lightly; there are very real similarities between the deep racism toward Jews in Nazi Germany and the deep racism toward Muslims in Burma today. President Thein Sein’s statement last July that the “only solution” to the Rohingya crisis is to deport the Rohingya and/or put them all into camps is strongly reminiscent of when Jews in Germany were also told that their only option was to move to camps.
The government has not only denied the claims of its involvement in any of the anti-Muslim violence, but it has also refused to pursue real justice and accountability with anti-Muslim mobs, law enforcement, actors inciting violence, and the Muslim-persecuting Na Sa Ka border guard. The government’s version of “justice” and “accountability” included rounding up and arbitrarily arresting more than 1,100 Rohingya Muslim men, a disproportionately higher number than Rakhine Buddhists.
In response to the most recent violence, the Muslim owner of the gold shop, along with his wife and another employee working in the shop, were arrested. What’s even more outrageous is that they were sentenced to 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, robbery, attempted injury, and aiding and abetting crimes. Anyone who claims that the Burmese government is now promoting greater rule of law displays willful ignorance, unless they consider it to be acceptable under rule of law to be arrested for robbery in one’s own shop or for aiding and abetting crimes simply for owning a shop where a conflict broke out.
The situation is further exacerbated by a proclamation by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing that the military will continue to play a key role in politics and as peacekeepers in Burma. After the government imposed martial law in some areas, the military has promoted an image of itself as the sole preserver of peace and stability in Burma. The language that the military is using now sounds unnervingly similar to the rhetoric that the military used to justify its brutal rule of the country from 1962-2010.
In order to end anti-Muslim violence in Burma, we must first demand an international investigation that examines the government’s role in organizing, participating in, or allowing the violence and deprivation to occur against Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities under a system of impunity. Addressing the current systems of impunity and violence would not only help to protect the vulnerable Muslim minority, but also the Kachin and Letpadaung mine protestors. Impunity and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law must no longer be tolerated by the international community. In order to attain peace, people in Burma need justice and accountability from their government, not imposed states of emergency and threats of military force. The international community must push for justice and accountability in Burma to stymie future violence and ensure a system of legal recourse and redress for victims.