Myanmar violence between Buddhists, Muslims threatens reforms

THABYUCHAING, Myanmar — U Abdul Samat spent his life farming the rice paddies that stretched, brilliant green, in all directions. Now he was nearly 90 years old, a great-grandfather who walked with a cane.

He was also a Muslim, and the men who stormed his village with machetes were Buddhists looking for Muslims to kill.

As the mob set fire to more than 100 homes not marked with a Buddhist flag, Abdul’s neighbors took cover at the mosque. But Abdul wasn’t quick enough. According to a survivor, the old man was killed by an assailant who swung a heavy sword into the back of his head.

The attack this month on Myanmar’s coast was the latest in a string of brutal clashes between the country’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. The sectarian violence has claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Muslim, and threatens to overshadow the reform effort of President Thein Sein, a former army general who surprised the world three years ago by promising to steer his isolated nation toward democracy.

The reforms had made Myanmar a rare story of optimism, embodied in the 2010 release from house arrest of pro-democracy dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But the violence, which some see as a consequence of the loosening of the police state, now threatens to put Myanmar, also known as Burma, on the map as another example of a country destablized by ethnic and religious rivalry.


Anti-Muslim sentiment has been stoked by a Buddhist political party that views Muslims as a threat and a group of ultranationalist monks who say they are defending the country against an Islamist militant takeover. The monks have called for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and are pushing legislation that would prohibit Buddhist women from marrying outside their religion.

The White House, United Nations and human rights groups have urged officials in Myanmar to calm the tension and resettle those made homeless since the bloodshed began in the summer of 2012.

At a congressional hearing in September, Tom Andrews of the U.S.-based rights group United to End Genocide linked the problem to decades of state-sponsored discrimination against Muslims, who make up just 5% of Myanmar’s population of about 55 million.

“The building blocks of genocide are in place,” he said.

In recent months, Thein Sein has met with leaders in both religions and vowed to stop the bloodshed. But as it continues, some have questioned his commitment.

Though Muslims nationwide have been targeted, members of one particular ethnic group, the Rohingya, have borne the brunt of the violence. Like many Buddhists, Thein Sein views the Rohingya Muslims, who live along the border with Bangladesh, as illegal immigrants, even though many have been in Myanmar for generations. Last year he said the only solution to the conflict was to deport or isolate the Rohingya.

Today, about 140,000 Rohingya reside in squalid displacement camps where work is scarce and movement restricted by armed police. Tens of thousands more have left Myanmar, paying smugglers to sneak them by boat to Malaysia or Thailand.

When the Pakistani Taliban threatened retaliation for the violence against Myanmar’s Muslims last year, some speculated that the conflict might provoke violence by Islamic extremists in other countries. Now some Muslim leaders in Myanmar worry about a homegrown radical movement.

“I’m afraid,” said Rohingya activist Aung Win, looking around a crowded camp. “One day these young men could become terrorists if they have to keep living this way.”


It has been raining for four months straight. Aye Aye Than tries to keep her house dry, but it’s not easy when your roof is made of U.N.-distributed rice sacks and your floor is made of mud.

She and 19 of her relatives have been living in this lean-to since last October, when they and dozens of others fleeing a Buddhist attack on their home boarded a leaky boat to an unknown future. They sailed along the coast all night, eventually docking in the city of Sittwe, where thousands of homeless Muslims had clustered in the camps along the murky banks of the Bay of Bengal.

The conflict that has rippled across Myanmar began here in Rakhine state in 2012 when three Rohingya men were convicted of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. A mob of Buddhists pulled 10 Muslims off a bus and beat them to death. Muslims in another part of the state soon attacked Buddhist villagers.

It was then, according to human rights investigations, that a two-sided flare-up of community tension turned into a one-sided campaign aimed at expelling the long-marginalized Rohingya, whom the United Nations has called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Hundreds were killed in a series of coordinated attacks, sometimes undertaken with the help of local security forces, according to Human Rights Watch. Pamphlets distributed by monks and political leaders urged Buddhists to isolate the Muslims, calling for “ethnic cleansing.”

In the 1960s, hard-line Gen. Ne Win expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslims whose families had come from India to work. Years later, he forced more than 200,000 Rohingya over the Bangladeshi border.

Unlike other minorities, including several ethnic groups that have waged separatist rebellions for decades, the Rohingya have never been recognized as citizens of Myanmar. In some areas they are barred from traveling, marrying or giving birth without state permission.

U Shwe Maung, a leader of the 3-year-old Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, says it’s better this way.

“If you had two children who were fighting, would you keep them together or separate them?” he asked.

His party represents Rakhine Buddhists, an ethnic group that is a majority in the state but a minority nationwide. It seeks the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims and more autonomy from the national government, which is controlled by the Burmans, a different Buddhist group whose monarch conquered the Rakhine kingdom in 1784.

“We are caught between Burmese chauvinism and Muslim Islamicization,” Maung said.

Only a short time ago, such a political statement could have landed him in prison. But the lifting of authoritarian controls has allowed new freedom of expression, even when it may be feeding violence.


Ashin Wirathu looks peaceful in his robes as he sits with a cup of tea at his Mandalay monastery. Guests enter throughout the morning, bowing and offering gifts of money and fruit.

The monk speaks softly, but his venomous anti-Muslim sermons have made him a star.

In an interview in a reception room decorated with more than a dozen portraits of himself, Wirathu said he believed that Muslim men were carrying out a conspiracy to take over Myanmar by seducing Buddhist women. He insisted that he did not advocate violence, but said Buddha had taught that it is acceptable to retaliate when provoked.

Wirathu was jailed a decade ago for inciting anti-Muslim hatred, then freed in 2010 under a general amnesty that was a key component of the government’s reforms. This year, when clashes spread from Rakhine state to target non-Rohingya Muslims elsewhere in the country, Wirathu’s movement appeared to play a central role.

In Meiktila, a college town in central Myanmar, a dispute this spring at a gold shop morphed into a three-day anti-Muslim riot in which 100 people were killed. Muslims say they were forced to eat pork and to pray Buddhist-style during the siege. Similar violence has played out in more than a dozen other towns.

For the most part, Myanmar’s leaders have defended Wirathu, with Thein Sein calling him “a son of Lord Buddha.”

To the disappointment of many of her international supporters, Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy dissident, has remained largely silent on the issue as the divisions between Buddhists and Muslims have deepened.

Across the country, Muslim men have started guarding mosques overnight in case of attack. In Meiktila, about 1,000 Muslims who used to reside downtown now live surrounded by razor wire on the campus of an Islamic university.

The risk of radicalization weighs heavy on some, who watch young men circulate graphic cellphone pictures of the violence and the more conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam take root among Myanmar’s Sunni Muslim community. In the muddy camps in Sittwe, makeshift mosques receive funding from religious groups in Saudi Arabia.

Some just want to escape. Aye Aye Than spent months trying to persuade her family to leave their crowded shack for Malaysia, where last year 13,000 Rohingya arrived by boat. Hundreds more died on the way.

Her husband, Zaw Hla, said the family would set out when the rainy season let up. “If we die at sea,” he said, “at least we will drown together.”

This article was reported with a grant from the International Reporting Project.