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Crackdown on Islamic groups in Myanmar

Bangkok, Sept.6 : Buddhist-majority Myanmar has acquired a reputation for launching frequent crackdowns on its minority Islamic groups residing within its boundaries.

Historically, minority Muslims have lived in Burma (now known as Myanmar) since the 11th century A.D., and they mostly consist of Rohingyas and descendants of Muslim immigrants from India, Bangladesh and China, as well as descendants of earlier Arab settlers and the recognised Kamein minority.

The initiation and introduction of democratic and economic reforms to end Myanmar’s isolation with the West notwithstanding, there have been frequent reports of the largely military-backed authoritarian regime cracking down on Muslims and violating their human rights to an excessive degree, thereby tragically reminding the international community that Myanmar is still far from resolving problems arising from decades of military rule.

The United Nations has declared Muslim settlers, and in particular, the Rohingyas, as the most oppressed people, as their existence is completely denied by the Government of Myanmar. Most of these 1.3 million Rohingyas are stateless and live in near apartheid-like conditions, and are often subjected to extreme hostilities.

It is a well known fact that “Islamic Expansion” in Buddhist-majority Myanmar is openly opposed, and in this context, the Government of Myanmar has extended support to radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu and several other political prisoners on the issue of reinvigorating the “969 Movement”.

The three digits of 969 “symbolise the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community.”

The first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha; the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dharma, or Buddhist Teachings, and the last 9 represents the nine special attributes of Buddhist Sangha. Those special attributes are said to be the “Three Jewels of the Buddha”.

The movement has inspired strong reactions within and beyond Myanmar. In the international media it has received criticism. The movement is described as being anti-Muslim or Islamophobic.

It is a widely believed and held view that a systemic campaign to eliminate Muslims, most of whom reside in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, gained momentum from 2011.

The crackdown against the Rohingyas has since had a spillover impact on or against all Islamic communities living in different parts of Myanmar, and according to informed sources, these people are treated as third class citizens.

The holding of inter-faith dialogues by several Islamic leaders in the recent past notwithstanding, the situation with regard to treatment of Muslims remains unchanged.

A recent census conducted by the government classified Muslims as people hailing from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and not as bonafide citizens of Myanmar. This aspect was even put on their identity cards.

This discrimination against Muslims and other Islamic groups has a history going back generations and centuries.

Between the 16th and the early part of the 20th century, imposition of restrictions, reports of ritualistic slaughter and massacres were the norm for dealing with Muslim subjects.

Under British colonial rule, Burmese Muslims were viewed as ‘Indians’, though they were different from the original ‘Indian Muslim’. They were collectively known as ‘Kala’, or ‘Black’. So, in a sense, there was both visible socio-economic and racial discrimination against this community.

The 1930s’in Myanmar was dominated by labour and job-related riots between Burmese and Indian workers, with each blaming the other for loss of employment.

Anti-British and anti-nationalistic sentiment most visibly impacted the Muslims, and these were led by Burmese-centric newspapers. Additionally, during this period and beyond the Second World War, Burmese Muslims were almost always reported to be in migratory mode to escape from the blatant hostilities towards them.

In 1997, nearly 1500 Buddhist monks and their Burmese supporters targeted Muslim mosques, shops, houses, transportation vehicles, books, and committed various other acts of sacrilege against members of the community. This damage and loot were committed in Kaingdan Mandalay. Three persons were killed and 100 monks were arrested.

In 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Taugoo in the Pegu Division of the country. It claimed the lives of about 200 Muslims and the destruction of 11 mosques, and about 400 houses. Practicing of their faith was also restricted to their homes by the military junta.

In the same year, the dynamiting of Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Afghan Taliban, was seen as anti-Buddhist in distant Myanmar, and was used as a pretext to vent violent ire against Burmese Muslims by Buddhist mobs. Muslim-owned businesses and properties were attacked and damaged; Muslims were killed; their religious freedom was curbed and controlled.

In 2012, communal riots between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in Kachin State. Between June 2012 and June 2015, nearly 280 Muslims have been killed as per data available, though the toll could be said to be much more. The number injured during this three-year period is between 15 and 20, and hundreds of homes and several mosques have been damaged.

According to human rights organisations like Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978. Many have sought refuge in countries like Bangladesh and Thailand, and rights organisations have been clamouring for their repatriation back to Myanmar.

According to official statistics of the Government of Myanmar, only four percent of its population practices Islam, which has been disputed by international bodies such as the International Crisis Group (ICG), who claim that the figure is closer to ten percent. The Burmese Muslim Association, on the other hand, believes it ranges between eight and twelve percent. (ANI)