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Myanmar’s Muslim Minority Persecuted by Buddhist Majority


Last March, the town of Meiktila, located at the city center of Myanmar and home to its Airforce Central Command, suffered a massacre of Muslims at the hands of Buddhist monks. According to government reports, 43 Muslims were killed; and 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed in a gross display of religious intolerance. The violence quickly spread to affect other townships in the Thayarwaddy District of the Bago Region. In every corner of the world, through every media outlet, there is a strong push to spotlight reports of Muslim aggression, but those voices weaken as the Muslim minority of Myanmar face apparent ethnic cleansing by the majority Buddhists who are relentlessly murdering, pillaging and torturing innocent men, women and children. 

Freelance Journalist Assed Baig visited Myanmar to gather information about the gruesome attacks from first hand eyewitnesses like ‘Muhammed’, who used an alternate name to protect his identity. His account underscores the ravage upon the Muslims in this region who are subjected not only to murder and mayhem, but acts of humiliation. Muhammed explains a devastating incident regarding the murder of his friend as they attempted to walk through a mob of Buddhist monks to the safety of police, “We had to put our hands over our heads and bow our heads and pay homage to the monks as we walked… They began to attack us. I saw my friends murdered… They dragged Abu Bakr away as he attempted to get on the truck, and began to beat him; he was still alive when they threw him in the fire. He stood back up, and then they stabbed him in the stomach with a sword, twisting it whilst it was in him.” What is to become of the children who witness these horrific events? Violence begets violence. Humanity must be taken to account and not allow what is clearly ethnic cleansing to be perpetrated by the Buddhist majority. 

Muslims have been in the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for over 1,000 years and in sharp contrast to the recent years of violence, have lived in relative peace with its Buddhist neighbors as is the case in many nations- even those where Muslims are the majority. Ethnic Rohingyas, the largely Muslim population, has lived in the country of Myanmar primarily in the Rakhine state for generations, but is still denied citizenship. In Meiktila about 30% of the population is Muslim, many coming from nearby China, but also from Bangladesh and India during the time of British rule, which ended in 1948. 

In November 2012, anti-Muslim violence left over 140 Rohingyas murdered with over 100,000 displaced from their homes while police stood by taking no action to protect them until after the damage was complete. Are the local authorities contributing to the swell of Islamophobia or even escalating the intensity as a result of their inaction? After the massacre in March at Meiktila, the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, spoke at a national address, “I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated”. 

Nevertheless, those affected most are seeing the slaughter of Muslims continue unabated. In an open letter to President Sein, the Islamic Religious Affairs Council and the Myanmar Muslim National Affairs Organisation wrote: “These violent attacks include crimes such as arson and massacres which deserve heavy penalties…However, in this situation the authorities neglected to take swift and effective action against the perpetrators who recklessly committed crimes in front of them. Massacres and damage to religious buildings and property are due to the weakness of the responsible authorities to protect and take effective action. Nyunt Maung Shein, president of the country’s Islamic Religious Affairs Council exclaimed, “All Muslims living in Myanmar are worried about this. What will happen to our faith? How can we live in this Buddhist society?” 

Earlier this year, human rights groups swiftly expressed public condemnation at those that who burned and looted a Christian minority town in Pakistan, when it was incorrectly attributed to be the result of Muslim religious aggression and persecution. The truth prevailed and the root of the violence was simply the greed of all involved, including officials who were found to be complicit in the events. When global occurrences present a different picture whereby Muslims are under threat or imminent persecution, those same voices must rise to the occasion and save the lives of innocent men, women and children. 

Some believe the root cause of the recent escalation of violence in Myanmar is politically motivated, and thus using religion as an easy differentiator to pit the poor against the poor; neighbor against neighbor. In a March 25 address, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng, stated that recognizing the root cause of this problem is key, “Failing to do so can have serious future consequences which the international community has solemnly promised to prevent.” 

The surge in Islamophobia in the region is attributed to radical Buddhist Monks who intend to challenge the new government’s plan to continue reforms leading to an increasingly democratic state that would include recognition of Bangladeshi and other groups who have been settled in the region for hundreds of years. One such extremist is Wirathu, a Buddhist monk sentenced to 25 years in prison for instigating violence against Muslims, but who is now free in an amnesty agreement to release political prisoners. Wirathu tours the country giving speeches that identify Muslims as “the enemy”. This derogatory rhetoric has paved the way for brutal murder and complacency from Myanmar’s local government officials. This same destructive propaganda is fully underway around the world, even in the United States of America, where freedom of speech is currently under assault by those who wish to vilify Islam and commit ‘freedom of action’ against those who practice a peaceful religion. Currently, American Muslims face unprecedented violence and prejudice based on fear initiated through the promotion of an Islamophobic ideology by those who flagrantly deliver speeches of hate. Should the Muslim minority in America look forward to the horrific realities of Myanmar? 

In his address on Myanmar, the United Nations Adama Dieng reiterated, “As a country that has positively surprised the international community with its recent transformation towards democracy, Myanmar needs to demonstrate that the rule of law will prevail and that all those living within its borders are and will be protected from violence and discrimination, particularly on the basis of religion or ethnicity.” It is time for more than voices, but the hands of strength and humanity must assist in the relief for the people of Myanmar so they no longer have to live in a constant state of fear. 

On April 18, over 10,000 miles away from their home, a group of nineteen Myanmar Muslims living in the United States traveled to a special masjid in the Catskill mountains of New York for prayer. In the masjid known as Baitullah, the personal name of Almighty God, Allah, appeared on the wall and has been shining from its Divine source for almost three years. It is there that the Myanmar Muslims prayed for their slain countrymen and made supplication to Almighty God for peace and justice. The Islamic tradition teaches that the Holy Last Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him) declared Almighty God will never reject the supplication of one who is oppressed and furthermore reiterated, “Beware of the supplication of the unjustly treated, because there is no shelter or veil between it, the supplication of the one who is suffering injustice, and Allah Glory be upon Him. 

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