Sectarian Violence in Burma

First, an update related to Saturday’s post on Tibet. China has recently closed Tibet to foreign visitors. The fear is that with Tibet cut-off from the world, the Chinese may engage in a massive crackdown (which to some extent they already have) that no one will ever know the true dimensions of. On June 1 Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Programme Director said, “Massively cracking down on the population in Lhasa is not a solution to the broad unrest we are seeing among Tibetans.”

Rohingya Muslim protesters in front of a United Nations office in Bangkok (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Over the weekend in Burma the government declared a state of emergency to deal with unrest after hundreds of Buddhist villagers’ homes were set on fire and seven people killed in rioting on Friday and Saturday. The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims threatens to undermine the new government’s reforms and the country’s transition to democracy. Read more here at Reuters.

At the center of the violence, as the news service points out, is “an issue that human rights groups have criticized for years: the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions . . .”  The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and there have been accusations of persecution by the military for years. The Rohingya also claim that many of their people are forced into labor at military camps.

Burma is also facing a crisis with the people in Kachin, the country’s northernmost state. June 9 marked the first anniversary of the breakdown of a 17-year-old ceasefire between the “Myanmar” government and the ethnic Kachin people. In the last 12 months there have been over 100 clashes between government and Kachin forces. The United Nations refugee agency say there are more than 50,000 displaced people in the Kachin state. It, too, is blocked off, as most international aid agencies and journalists are not allowed there.

Getting back to the violence over the weekend that led to the emergency rule, Reuters notes that the Rohingya Muslims “are despised by many ethnic Rakhine, members of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist majority.”

Rakhine Buddhist holds a machete as he guardshomes in Sittwe, Burma (Reuters)

The Rakhine are largely Theravada Buddhists. It’s difficult to understand how a group that claims to be one of the first people to embrace Buddha-dharma in Southeast Asia could despise another people. Mahatma Gandhi had the same feeling in 1938, when he could not understand how it was possible for Burmese Budd

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