Think tanks: religious strife risks future Myanmar violence

September 5, 2017 GMT
Members of Myanmar's Rohingya ethnic minority walk through rice fields after crossing the border into Bangladesh near Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Members of Myanmar's Rohingya ethnic minority walk through rice fields after crossing the border into Bangladesh near Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

BANGKOK (AP) — Two new reports suggest that violence in western Myanmar fueled by tensions between the Buddhist ethnic Rakhine community and Rohingya Muslims both reflects and reinforces broader anti-Muslim sentiment, and could result in more violence in the country.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report on “Buddhism and Politics in Myanmar” that the crisis triggered by Rohingya insurgent attacks on police posts and massive retaliation by the army has boosted anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide, opening the possibility of even more religious violence.


It said Buddhist nationalists who preach against Muslims have significant popular support in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.

A separate report by Burma Human Rights Network charges that Muslims throughout the country, not just the Rohingya in Rakhine state, face increasing harassment, and their stigmatization could also beget more violence.

Hundreds were killed and more than 150,000 people displaced from their homes in 2012 when mob violence broke out between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, driven by long-standing prejudice against the Rohingya, who are considered by many to have entered Myanmar illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

In the aftermath of that violence, sporadic attacks against Muslims occurred in other parts of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Last October, Rohingya insurgents attacked police, setting off an army operation that targeted Rohingya villagers. Another attack by the insurgents last month set off even greater devastation by the army, driving more than 100,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

“While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the specter of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country’s transition,” warned the report from the International Crisis Group.

It said that since an army-backed but elected government took over in 2012 after decades of military rule, there has been an upsurge in “extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence.”

The organization most associated with the anti-Muslim movement is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion — usually referred to by its Myanmar-language acronym, Ma Ba Tha.


Some of the group’s leaders “espouse extreme bigoted and anti-Muslim views, and incite or condone violence in the name of protecting race and religion,” the report said.

It said Ma Ba Tha “is viewed by many of its supporters as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable.”

A failure by the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi to come to grips with economic inequality and provide adequate public services such as education, access to justice and disaster relief allows Ma Ba Tha to gain legitimacy, the report said.

The report by the Burma Human Rights Network likewise found that “persecution of Muslims has worsened rather than improved” since Suu Kyi’s government came to power in March 2016.

“Rather than engendering a move towards religious equality and communal harmony, the transition to democracy has instead allowed popular prejudices to influence how the new government rules, and has amplified a dangerous narrative that casts Muslims as an alien presence in Buddhist-majority Burma,” said the report. “The continued stigmatization faced by Muslims, aided by the state in Burma, greatly increases the potential for group violence to recommence in the future.”