Published: November 30, 2012
SITTWE, Myanmar – The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.
But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”
“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said. “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”
Violence here in Rakhine State – where clashes have left at least 167 people dead and 100,000 people homeless, most of them Muslims – has set off an exodus that some human rights groups condemn as ethnic cleansing. It is a measure of the deep intolerance that pervades the state, a strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar, that Buddhist religious leaders like Mr. Nyarna, who is the head of an association of young monks, are participating in the campaign to oust Muslims from the country, which only recently began a transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.
After a series of deadly rampages and arson attacks over the past five months, Buddhists are calling for Muslims who cannot prove three generations of legal residence – a large part of the nearly one million Muslims from the state – to be put into camps and sent to any country willing to take them. Hatred between Muslims and Buddhists that was kept in check during five decades of military rule has been virtually unrestrained in recent months.
Even the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence. President Obama made the issue a priority during his visit to the country this month – the first by a sitting American president – and Muslim nations as diverse as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have expressed alarm.
Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar have had an uneasy coexistence for decades, and in some areas for centuries, but the thin threads that held together the social fabric of Rakhine State have torn apart this year.
Muslims who fled their homes now live in slumlike encampments that are short on food and medical care, surrounded by a Buddhist population that does not want them as neighbors.
“This issue must be solved urgently,” said U Shwe Maung, a Muslim member of Parliament. “When there is no food or shelter, people will die.”
Conditions have become so treacherous for Muslims across the state that Mr. Shwe Maung travels with a security force provided by the government. “They give me a full truck of police,” he said. “Two, three or four policemen is not enough.”
Leaders of the Buddhist majority in the state say they feel threatened by what they say is the swelling Muslim population from high birthrates and by Islamic rituals they find offensive, like the slaughter of animals.
“We are very fearful of Islamicization,” said U Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the largest party in the state. “This is our native land; it’s the land of our ancestors.”
During outbreaks of sectarian violence in June and again in October, villagers armed themselves with swords, clubs and sharpened bicycle spokes that they launched from homemade catapults. In Muslim-majority areas, monasteries were burned. In Buddhist-majority areas, mosques were destroyed. The mayhem was set off by the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl for which Muslims were blamed.
The center of Sittwe, a former British colonial outpost, is now empty of the Muslims who once worked in large numbers as stevedores and at other manual jobs.
“I’m scared to go back,” said Aye Tun Sein, who was a teacher at a government school before the upheaval. In his village, Teh Chaung East, a 20 minute drive from Sittwe, he said that no one has a job because no one can leave the village, a collection of shacks and tents.
Political leaders describe the near total segregation of Muslims as temporary, but it appears to be more and more permanent.
“I don’t miss them,” said U Win Maung, a bicycle rickshaw driver whose house was burned down in June by his Muslim neighbors. “The hatred we have for each other is growing day by day.”
During his visit, Mr. Obama spent a considerable portion of a speech at Yangon University focusing on the importance of diversity, singling out the “danger” of the Rakhine situation and telling his audience “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.”
“What we’ve learned in the United States is that there are certain principles that are universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you practice,” he said.
Divisions are so deep in Rakhine State that the communities cannot agree on what the Muslims should be called. Many Muslims call themselves Rohingya, an ethnic group that is not officially recognized in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Small Muslim communities coexist with the Buddhist majority across Myanmar, but hatred is greatest for the Rohingya, partly because of their large numbers – at least 800,000, according to the United Nations – and their concentration in Rakhine State. (The country has a population of 55 million.)
The Buddhist residents of Rakhine see themselves as the inheritors of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U. They do not consider themselves ethnically Burmese, and the government recognizes them as a separate group. Rakhine Buddhists say they feel squeezed, persecuted by the Burmese majority and threatened by the swelling Muslim minority.
Before the violence, Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims had a sort of master-servant relationship, a castelike system in which Muslims did menial work and Buddhists were usually the bosses.
“We lived side by side but we never talked to each other,” said Daw Htwe May, a 51-year-old Buddhist resident of Sittwe who lost her home in the violence.
A group of Buddhist women burst out laughing when asked whether their children played with Muslims.
“Even a small boy knows that he should not play with a kalar,” a pejorative term for people of Indian descent, said Daw Thein Hla Yi, 55.
Buddhists say Muslims should be considered illegal immigrants, and they are angry that foreign countries and the foreign news media have sympathy for Muslims.
Leaders from both groups reach back into history for justifications for their cause.
“These people did not migrate from anywhere,” said Mr. Shwe Maung, the Muslim member of Parliament whose father was a police officer and whose grandfather was a landlord in Rakhine State. “They have been living there for several centuries.”
President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the United Nations in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed citizenship. The rest were a “threat to the peace of the nation,” he said, and would be put in camps and sent abroad. The United Nations rejected the idea, saying that it was not in the business of creating refugees.
Diplomats say that Mr. Thein Sein has retreated from that position and is now talking about resettling displaced Muslim populations inside the country. He sent a letter to the United Nations just before Mr. Obama’s visit saying that once passions cooled he would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But he offered no details or time frame. He has ordered a commission of inquiry, which is expected to issue a report in the coming months.
In Sittwe, Buddhists say they are not ready to make concessions. Mr. Nyarna, the monk, said many Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.”