Terror in America, Backlash in Burma
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Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Terror in America, Backlash in Burma

By Maung Maung Oo OCT, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.8

While Muslims around the world protest against airstrikes in Afghanistan, Burma’s Muslims are keeping silent, as the latest wave of communal violence continues. When afternoon prayer time is over, a group of Muslim men wearing long, white shirts and small hats pours onto the road from a mosque next to the Sule Pagoda, situated in downtown Rangoon, site of many mosques. Although the worship has ended, many who have come out of the mosque continue to hang around just outside for a while, standing and chatting together on a road where vendors sell Islamic religious books, Islamic-style rosaries, and Indian food. It looks like a peaceful scene in any Islamic country. Yet this is in Burma, and though the proximity of pagodas and mosques suggests an easy co-existence of Buddhists and Muslims, this is far from the truth. In reality, serious religious clashes are not uncommon in Burma. This year several religious confrontations have already occurred, and for Muslims in Burma, the idea of peaceful co-existence for all religions has not come true yet. Under these circumstances, the escalation of American’s "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan is making Muslims in Burma feel constrained and uncomfortable among the majority of Burmese people, even though they are not terrorists. Burma is unlike other countries in the region. While Buddhist and Muslim groups in other Asian countries have been holding joint protests against America’s military campaign in Afghanistan, anti-Muslim demonstrations have occurred three times within a month in Burma. These demonstrations, which have resulted in violence, are believed to be spreading to towns all over the country. The military government has already announced an official curfew in towns where major religious clashes have occurred, and unofficial curfews are also being observed in other prominent cities of central Burma. "At least one person was killed and about 40 Muslim shops were destroyed in the clash," said a young Burmese Muslim, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the anti-Muslim demonstration that occurred in the second week of October in Prome, located about 300 kilometers northwest of Rangoon. The clash is thought to have been sparked off when a young Burmese girl who eloped with a Muslim man was forced to convert to Islam and the parents of the girl protested against the Muslim man’s family at their mosque, according to a source in the town. The government cut off all phone lines in town and announced a curfew under Section 144, to prevent the unrest spreading to other towns. But within a week, in Pegu, a one-hour drive from Rangoon, another religious clash broke out similar to that in Prome. A quarrel between some monks and a Muslim drug store owner sparked the clash. The government immediately announced a curfew in town and ordered the Buddhist monasteries to close their Buddhist schools until the situation returned to normal. All student monks were forced to go back their hometowns. "Many Muslim shops were ransacked and destroyed by young Buddhist monks and Burmese people. Burmese onlookers showed them the shops run by Muslims," said a Muslim woman in Pegu. The government later arrested some monks and others involved in the riot. Another anti-Muslim demonstration followed within days. On Oct 21, over 300 young Buddhist monks took to the streets of Hinzada (Hinthada), Irrawaddy Division and stormed the town’s Muslims blocks. The problem leading to the clash was a quarrel between some monks and a Muslim who ran a videotape rental shop. Riot police used teargas bombs and they also fired their guns in the air to disperse the people. Although the authorities later took serious action against the shop owner, most of the monks in town are still dissatisfied with the government’s action, according to reliable sources in town. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been deeply rooted in Burma for hundreds of years. "Kalar" is the word used by Burmese people to describe Burmese of Indian extraction. During the British colonial era, the British designated Burma as a state of India, and hundreds of thousands of Indian people were brought into Burma, where most of them settled down. The majority of migrant Indian Muslims worked in inferior jobs in Burma. Since that time, the famous British "divide and rule" policy produced many religious clashes in the country and planted the seeds of anti-Muslim hatred among the Burmese community. After independence, Ne Win’s government exploited the people’s hatred of Muslims. Whenever the country faced a political or economic crisis, Ne Win’s government created religious clashes between the Burmese and Muslims in an effort to turn the public’s attention away from the crisis.

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