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Myanmar's Buddhist terrorism problem

In a Muslim neighborhood in the city Mektila, the mosque was the only building that survived after waves of violence led against Muslims by Buddhists have destroyed and left many buildings in ruins during the riots in March 2013. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer / LightRocket / Getty Images)

By Usaid Siddiqui
February 18, 2015

The country's Rohingya minority is one of the most persecuted groups in the world

On Feb. 11, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein rescinded a voting rights offer to the country’s Rohingya community amid intense pressure from far-right Buddhist groups. Last week hundreds of Buddhists took to the streets to denounce the continuation of a 2010 law that extended the right to vote to the country’s more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya. Myanmar does not regard the minority group as citizens. 

The violence directed toward the Muslim Rohingya community has been characterized in the media as Buddhism’s terrorism problem. However, the faith-based portrayal of the Rohingya crisis devalues the political and social nuances necessary to understanding the conflict. 

The ‘Burmese bin Laden’ 

The Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Stripped of citizenship in the 1980s, the Rohingya have been a subject of frequent racist propaganda and blistering violence. For years numerous human rights organizations have documented the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. The community continues to live under constant threats, with few legal rights. 

The campaign against the Rohingya and Muslims in Myanmar is spearheaded by controversial monk Ashin Wirathu. Once referred to as the “Burmese bin Laden,” he is the leader of an ultranationalist group called 969, which opposes the growth of Islam in Myanmar. He was jailed in 2003 for inciting hatred and stirring sectarian clashes and released in 2010. 

Wirathu has warned against an impending Muslim takeover of Myanmar. In 2012 the rape of a Buddhist woman in northern Rakhine led to violent attacks that left dozens of civilians dead and more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims displaced. Human Rights Watch described the humanitarian crisis as “ethnic cleansing.” 

Myanmar’s government and local authorities have long been complicit in the violence against the Rohingya and other minority groups. “Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population,” HRW said in a detailed report in 2013. “Included in the death toll were 28 children who were hacked to death, including 13 under age 5. ” 

Wirathu justified the violence saying the Rohingya were planning to establish an Islamic state in Rakhine. He has since urged non-Muslims to boycott Muslim shops and avoid doing business with Muslims. “Your purchases spent in their shops will benefit the enemy,” Wirathu said in a 2013 YouTube video. “So do business with only shops with 969 signs.”

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