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Burma’s Hard-Line Buddhists Are Waging a Campaign of Hate That Nobody Can Stop

A Muslim man walks around the ruins of what was once his family's home after waves of violence led against Muslims by Buddhists destroyed and left many buildings in ruins during the riots of March 2013 in the Muslim quarter of the Burmese city of Mektila (Photo: Jonas Gratzer)

By Francis Wade
December 16, 2015

Sectarian hatred shown by Burma's Buddhist extremists toward the country's Muslim minority has become so pronounced that activists and politicians appear unable to stop it

The first text message came through several days after Myo had ended his workshop. “F—g kalar,” it read, using a slur that Burmese ultra-nationalists like to apply to Muslims or others of South Asian appearance. “Why don’t you stop your work?”

It was late July, exactly one year on from a deadly bout of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the northern Burmese city of Mandalay. The young activist, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, had been working on a series of peace-building initiatives between the two communities, which had fissured in the wake of several waves of violence since 2012.

The workshop had gone relatively smoothly, or so he thought. A second message, the following day, caused even more alarm. “You want to die? Why are you pressuring our monks?” Myo grew increasingly agitated. As someone openly advocating interfaith harmony in a deeply divided society he was already too conspicuous for comfort.

He thought back on the workshop. Among the group were a number of progressive monks, and he was sure the tone of the meeting chimed with their own desires for religious accord. But there had been one nun present who had seemed resentful toward him. After a session on the Buddhist concept of “right speech” — defined by Buddha as words promoting peace and happiness — she fell quiet. He knew the nun had close ties to Wirathu, the abbot of a monastery in Mandalay, who is known not for his right speech but hate speech towards Muslims.

Myo told TIME that he decided to postpone future workshops. But later that day, a third message was received. “Who the hell are you to teach our monks? Motherf—r kalar, you’re going to die,” it warned. When a final message arrived on July 26, he decided to flee Mandalay and go into hiding. “We will see you tomorrow,” it read.

During its nearly half-century of military rule, the world tended to view Burma — formally known as Myanmar — as a black-and-white case of bad junta vs. good opposition, whose most visible luminaries were Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many of the country’s saffron-robed monks. But the democratization process, supported by Western countries eager to draw resource-rich Burma out of China’s hands and into theirs, has brought into the open communal divides that had previously been hidden from view. Monks, whose leadership of the September 2007 uprising against military rule won them international admiration, have become among the most vocal proponents of a view of Islam as a foreign religion whose faithful posed an existential threat to Burmese Buddhism.

Particular venom has been reserved for the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma, who were branded interlopers from Bangladesh and subjected to several campaigns of violence since 2012 that left hundreds dead and close to 150,000 in squalid displacement camps. Suu Kyi, a world-renowned icon of democracy, has been roundly criticized for failing to condemn the pogroms — fearful that to do so would be considered tantamount to support for an increasingly maligned Muslim community in Burma, and could affect support for her among a population that has shown an alarmingly anti-Muslim streak.

Inside Burma, the upshot has been broader disenfranchisement of Muslims, with no Muslim candidates standing for Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, in its victorious showing at the November elections that were considered such a major step in bringing democracy to Burma. Outside of the country, particularly among Western backers of the transition, many have questioned exactly what brand of democracy Suu Kyi and her colleagues, who have been largely silent on the persecution of Muslims, have fought all these years for.

Around the same time that Myo began receiving threats, a fellow interfaith activist in Mandalay was being stalked by Burmese authorities. On a Tuesday in mid-July, the cell phone of Zaw Zaw Latt, 31, a member of the Mandalay Interfaith Social Volunteer Youth Group, began to ring. The caller identified himself as a policeman and told Zaw Zaw Latt to head to a café in downtown Mandalay at 8 p.m. that evening. Several officers from the Criminal Investigation Department were waiting, and started to question him about a photo on social media of him holding a rifle. The photo dated from 2013, when Zaw Zaw Latt had traveled as part of an outreach trip to camps for displaced persons rebel-held territory in Kachin state. While there, he posed with the firearm for show.

Unhappily for Zaw Zaw Latt, the photo was picked up two years later, and he was detained and later charged under a law banning association with “unlawful” groups. Less than a week later, two other colleagues, Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Win Bo, from the same Mandalay interfaith network that was set up in the wake of another round of anti-Muslim violence in March 2013, were arrested on spurious charges of illegal border crossing several months before, and sent to the same jail as Zaw Zaw Latt. Border officials had testified at one hearing that the two had been permitted to cross into India, but judges dismissed their testimony.

A relative of Zaw Zaw Latt explains to TIME that at every court appearance since his arrest in July, members of an ultra-nationalist monk-led movement known locally as Ma Ba Tha had been present. “They come and observe, and they put pressure on the mother of Pwint Phyu Latt and tell her he could be in prison for seven years,” she says of an encounter she had witnessed outside a court hearing in November.

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