Muslim women hold their children at their house in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s western Rakhine state
An eruption in religious tensions in Myanmar has exposed the deep divisions between the majority Buddhists and the country’s Muslims, considered foreigners despite a decades-long presence.
The violence threatens to overshadow reconciliation efforts in the country formerly known as Burma, where there has been a series of dramatic political reforms since almost half a century of military rule ended last year.
The trigger for the latest surge in sectarian tensions was the rape and murder of a woman in western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, for which three Muslim men have been detained, according to state media.
On Sunday a mob of hundreds of people attacked a bus, believing the perpetrators were on board, and beat 10 Muslims to death.
“These innocent people have been killed like animals,” said Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the country’s much-persecuted stateless Muslim Rohingya community.
“If the police cannot control the situation, maybe the (unrest) is going to spread,” he said, adding that the biggest fear was for Rakhine state, where there is a large Muslim minority population including the Rohingya.
In Myanmar’s main city Yangon, dozens of Muslims protested on Tuesday calling for justice.
Muslims entered Myanmar en masse for the first time as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.
But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.
“For many people, a Burmese is a Buddhist by definition. Buddhism forms an essential part of their identity,” said Jacques Leider, a historian at the French School of the Far East based in northern Thailand.
“The situation is explosive and from friction to the clashes is only a matter of lighting the fuse,” he told AFP shortly before the latest violence.
Myanmar’s Muslims — of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent — account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.
Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in the past across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for tensions.
In February 2001, the then-ruling junta declared a curfew in the state capital Sittwe after clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.
The authorities this week warned against “anarchic acts” after the mob killings and an attack on a police station by an angry crowd in Sittwe.
But violence is only the most visible expression of a pervasive discrimination, according to Muslim groups.
Ko Aung Aung, of the exiled Burmese Muslim Association (BMA), said travel, justice and access to education and employment were all affected.
“The daily relationship with Buddhists is good as long as you know your limited ground and do not cross it,” he said.
For the majority of people “any crime is a crime”, but when a Muslim is suspected “it could be a good reason to riot against them,” added Ko Aung Aung, who fled Myanmar in 2004 fearing for his safety because of his activism.
“Riots are always possible at any place and any time. So we must be very careful,” he said.
Sittwe has a Muslim population of around 100,000 and dozens of mosques.
But a Muslim leader in the town, who asked not to be named, told AFP there was “no religious freedom”, adding that authorities rarely granted permission for new mosques to be built, or repairs to be carried out.
Rights violations also affect other religious groups in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks who participated in a failed uprising in 2007 and who continue to be arrested and harassed, according to Amnesty International.
Myanmar’s community of 750,000 Rohingyas, who are confined to the north of Rakhine and considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, are singled out for particular disdain.
In Sittwe even pronouncing the word Rohingya can ignite passions among people who view them at best as unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh and at worst “invaders”.
“They are fighting to own the land, occupy the entire state,” said Khaing Kaung San, a local activist in education and other areas. “They don’t need weapons, just by their numbers they can cover the entire land.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Shwe Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which represents the ethnic Rakhine people.
Talking about hostility to Muslims in general, he said: “One day it will be a serious problem, they caused trouble in Thailand, Europe, USA. They try to make trouble in Rakhine State.”
Despite decades of isolation, Muslims have also suffered from the images of violence associated with radical Islam, according to a foreign researcher, who asked not to be identified.
He said Myanmar’s devout Buddhists had been particularly shocked by the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
“There is a feeling, a fear among the country’s Buddhists about being invaded,” he added.