Are Extremist Buddhists in Burma attacking Helpless Muslims? (Walton)

(Author title: “Matthew Walton: A Primer on the Roots of Buddhist/Muslim Conflict in Myanmar, and A Way Forward” )

Matthew J. Walton writes at ISLAMiCommentary

Recently Myanmar has been in the news for more than just its surprising political reforms and nascent transition from military rule. Violent attacks—mostly by Buddhists against Muslims—have occurred in cities across the country and an insistent and vocal new movement called 969 (named after the holy attributes of the Buddha, his teachings, and the community of monks) has galvanized Buddhist nationalism. Monks have been some of the loudest voices in this movement, calling for laws that discriminate against Muslims and even threatening politicians who refuse to support them. Many casual observers know that Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but relatively little is known about the Burmese Muslim community. In this essay I will give a brief introduction to the Muslim community in Myanmar, explain the roots and dynamics of the current religious conflict, and consider some of the challenges facing Muslims in the country.

Islam in Myanmar

Mosque in Yangon, Myanmar. (January 4, 2013) photo by Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia

Mosque in Yangon, Myanmar. (January 4, 2013) photo by Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia

Sunnis make up the vast majority of Muslims in Myanmar, although there are representatives of Shiites, Sufis, and other smaller sects. Muslims initially arrived as traders, as early as the 11th century, coming from Central Asia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The Muslim population in Myanmar today includes those of Indian ancestry, Malay ancestry, Chinese ancestry (Panthays), and many of mixed ancestry.

This diversity, as well as the inherent fungibility of religious and ethnic identity make it challenging to adequately survey the Muslim population of Myanmar, and unfortunately very few scholars have studied the subject.

Official statistics put the Muslim population at around 4% (various Muslim groups have estimated the population at 5-10%), but there are many reasons to be skeptical of demographic data in Myanmar. First, the government lacks the infrastructure and expertise to carry out a professional census (although there is one planned with international assistance for 2014). Second, many areas of the country are still active conflict zones, so their populations have not been adequately accounted for. Finally, identity presumptions that conflate the ethnic majority Burman population with Buddhism (and vice versa) mean that many people are counted as either Burman or Buddhist when in fact they would choose to identify in a different way.

(Technically there are Burman Muslims (either through marriage or conversion) but in the eyes of the state (and of most Burmans) they would cease to be Burman and would likely be classified as “Muslim” or even “foreign.” Christians are estimated to be approximately 4%, and the country also has small populations of Hindus and animists (although the latter population is also underestimated because of conflation with Buddhism).)

Muslims in Myanmar have faced the everyday discrimination and challenges that non-Buddhists face in an overwhelmingly Buddhist majority country, but there have also been instances of more targeted oppression. Riots in 1930 were directed more generally at the immigrant Indian population (as a stand-in for the colonial power), but the 1938 riots (although also intended as anti-colonial actions) targeted Muslims more explicitly. After the establishment of military rule in 1962, Muslims were explicitly excluded from the Burmese military. Anti-Muslim riots occurred again in Mandalay in 1997 and Taungoo in 2001. While these latter incidents involved large numbers of monks, many have speculated that the incidents were organized by the military to deflect attention from other issues or to galvanize nationalist sentiment.

The Threat of Buddhist Nationalism

Monks take an examination in Bago, Myanmar. (February 26, 2008), Wikimedia Commons

Monks take an examination in Bago, Myanmar. (February 26, 2008), Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the twentieth century, modern Burmese nationalism emerged from movements concerned with protecting Buddhism from the incursions of colonialism. Before the advent of colonial rule the Burmese king had been the primary protector of Buddhism and a symbol of cosmological stability and harmony. When the British consolidated control of Burma in 1886 and deposed the last Burmese king, they also neglected to take up his responsibility of institutionally supporting the monkhood, which Burmese Buddhists believed led to a deterioration of monastic discipline and a subsequent decline in Buddhist morality in the country. In essence, the protection and propagation of Buddhism became inadvertently democratized, as lay and monastic groups began to organize politically on behalf of their religion and their nation.

Within the Theravada Buddhist cosmology, the well-being of the religion and the strength of the polity are seen as interdependent. Defending Buddhism, therefore, required political independence and in the first decades of the twentieth century, monks occasionally led nationalist movements and protests. Beyond mere independence, however, many Buddhists believed that only an explicitly Buddhist government could assure the continued development of the religion. This belief manifested in several ways. Sometimes the defense of Buddhism was directed against particular groups (Muslims, Christians, etc.) or ideologies (communism, Marxism, etc.), perceived as “threats” to both the nation and the religion. Additionally, as Burmese nationalism developed, its proponents often used religious symbolism to link the Burmese nation to a Buddhist religious identity. Because Burmese nationalism was essentially a Burman, Buddhist nationalism, many non-Burman and non-Buddhist groups and individuals developed identities that were increasingly defined in opposition to this majority.

The 969 movement is the public face of the current resurgent Buddhist nationalism. The movement derives its name from the nine great qualities of the Buddha, the six great qualities of the dhamma (his teachings), and the nine great qualities of the sangha (monkhood), the “triple gems” of Buddhism. There is also a sense in which 969 is intended as a numerological counter to the Muslim 786 symbol. 786 is a numerological representation of “Bismillah Rahmane ne Rahim” (which, interestingly, is considered haram by some branches of Islam) and is pragmatically used by Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere in South Asia as an identifying marker, particular in the case of halal restaurants. A groundless yet widespread rumor in Myanmar is that 786—adding up to 21—is a secret Muslim code that indicates a desire to take over either Myanmar or the world (depending on the scope of the teller’s ambitions) in the 21st century.

The most vocal proponent of 969 ideals has been U Wirathu, a relatively young monk who oversees other monks at Masoyein Monastery in Mandalay. He was imprisoned in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets and released in a general amnesty in 2012. Since that time he has styled himself as a democratic activist, supporting citizen protests against a copper mine in central Myanmar but has also traveled the country giving sermons that demonize Muslims and urge Burmese Buddhists to “take action” against a perceived Islamic threat. Unfortunately, the recent TIME magazine article declaring him the “face of Buddhist terror” has only served to increase his visibility and compelled even Burmese Buddhists who disagree with his vitriolic sermons to come to his defense and to feel as if Burmese Buddhism is being attacked more generally.

969 supporters claim that their movement is intended solely for the protection of Buddhism and not as an anti-Muslim crusade, yet some prominent monks regularly preach sermons in which they spread rumors, denigrate Islam and Muslims, and encourage boycotts of Muslim businesses. Because monks are highly respected in Burmese society and because supporters of 969 portray their movement as one designed to protect Buddhism, it is very difficult for Burmese Buddhists (especially lay Buddhists) to challenge or question the monks and political figures who lead it. Only gradually have inter-faith groups and prominent monks begun to respond by advocating harmony and tolerance and articulating an alternate conception of the defense of Buddhism.

Violence in Rakhine State

map courtesy of

map courtesy of

Rakhine State, where the current wave of religious violence began in June 2012, has a complicated ethnic and religious history. The majority of the population are ethnic Rakhine, most of whom are Buddhist. The kingdom of Mrauk U, established in 1430, was the last of the Rakhine kingdoms but it was plagued by instability. In 1666, the Mughal Empire annexed the Chittagong region and in 1784, the entire kingdom was conquered by the Burman King Bodawpaya, who ruled Burma at the time. Rakhine identity since that time has been partially built around a feeling of being besieged (and conquered) by Muslim kingdoms to the West and Burman (Buddhist but ethnically different) kingdoms to the East.

The colonial annexation of Burma occurred in a piecemeal fashion, with the British first acquiring areas of Western Burma (today Rakhine State) in 1826. While migration across Burma’s Western border took place before then, the effective merging of British India and British holdings in Burma opened up the border even further. As Burma began its push for independence, fighting occasionally broke out between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State. During WWII, ethnic and religious militias formed among both the Buddhist Rakhine (who wanted to assert their autonomy from the Burman majority) and the Muslims in Rakhine State (including a Mujahideen insurgency that for a time sought annexation to Pakistan). Most of these rebellions were put down throughout the 1950s by the Burmese military.

The porous border between Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh has presented demographic and social challenges for all three countries. Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971 increased the militancy and militarization of populations near the border. In 1978 the Burmese military conducted an operation termed “Naga Min” or “Dragon King.” The stated purpose was to root out any remaining Islamic militants, but many believed that the purpose was to cleanse the area of the Muslim Rohingya population. The result was that tens of thousands of refugees fled across the border to Bangladesh (although in the following decades many would return in order to escape violence and poverty in Bangladesh). Since that time the Burmese military has attempted to secure the border through military cooperation (mostly with India) and through the repressive tactics of the recently dismantled Nasaka, the infamous border security force. While tensions remained between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, there was little overt religious violence, until June 2012. It is worth noting, however that geographical and economic separation between the two communities has gradually increased over the past few decades.

The Muslim population of Myanmar’s western Rakhine State is primarily made up of two groups. The first (and smallest) is the Kaman, one of the recognized 135 ethnic groups in the country. The second (and clear majority of the Muslim population in Rakhine State) is the Rohingya, a group whose demographics, origins, and even name are the subject of acrimonious debate inside and outside of the country. Some Rohingya claim to be indigenous to the area of Rakhine state, while other accounts place their initial origins in what is now India or Bangladesh. Their language is closely related to Chittagonian and more distantly related to Bengali. Over the last century, conflict and poverty have driven the Rohingya back and forth across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and while many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine State for generations, large numbers have arrived illegally in recent years.

Most Burmese reject the claim that the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations and instead consider them to be “illegal Bengali immigrants.” The Burmese government has argued that they are not an officially recognized ethnic group and that the name “Rohingya” is a politicized identity marker created in the 1950s. Scholars and Rohingya advocates have contested this, however, pointing to British colonial documents from the 18th century that mention the Muslim “Rooinga” population in the Rakhine region. Prominent Buddhist political leaders during the parliamentary period following independence also publicly recognized the Rohingya as one of Burma’s ethnic groups.

Rakhine Buddhists continue to express fears that the Rohingya population is growing at an alarming rate due to higher birth rates and illegal immigration. Again, reliable statistics are difficult to find but some border districts in Rakhine State are over 90% Muslim and one recent estimate suggests that there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya in the country. However, while Rakhine concerns need to be acknowledged, there is nothing beyond anecdotal evidence to confirm Rakhine claims about Rohingya birth rate.

The current Burmese government does not consider the Rohingya to be citizens under the 1982 citizenship law, however many Rohingya claim to have been offered official ID cards leading up to the 2010 elections in exchange for a vote for the military proxy USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). Although the Kaman are a recognized ethnic group and most hold Myanmar ID cards, many of them have been the victims of violence and displacement during the current crisis at the hands of Rakhines who have not distinguished between Rohingya and Kaman.

In June 2012, riots erupted in western Rakhine State after the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim men. Rakhine Buddhists retaliated by killing ten Muslims in an attack on a bus and the fighting quickly spread between Buddhists and Rohingya. There were casualties on both sides but most observers agree that the Rohingya suffered a disproportionately greater loss of life and property; many people displaced by the conflict are still in temporary camps today. In October 2012 violence again broke out in Rakhine State, bringing the death toll to at least 200 with more than 100,000 displaced.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released satellite pictures, taken in October 2012, showing hundreds of buildings in the Burmese town of Kyaukpyu that were destroyed. Senior Burma director of HRW, Phil Robertson, told the BBC the entire area had been “burned out, presumably by arson.” WATCH BELOW

Anti-Muslim Violence Spreads Across Myanmar

Although the conflict in Rakhine state initially appeared to be the result of local tensions, Buddhist-Muslim violence soon began to appear across the country, involving non-Rohingya Muslims. In the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila, riots in March 2013 resulted in dozens of deaths as Buddhists burned Muslim homes, mosques and schools in response to a jewelry store dispute and the murder of a Buddhist monk by a group of Muslims. Violent incidents occurred in several other cities, although it is notable that stories did eventually emerge of effective community policing, Buddhists sheltering Muslim neighbors from attacks, and religious and community leaders coming together to refute rumors and restrain militant elements of their own communities.

More disappointing has been the governmental and legal response to the riots. The Burmese President Thein Sein pledged that those responsible would be held accountable but in most cases (despite ample video evidence of Buddhists, even monks, attacking Muslims) those arrested and prosecuted have been predominantly Muslim. Additionally, the sentences have been absurdly disproportionate. For example, seven Buddhists convicted for their roles in a massacre at an Islamic school received sentences of at the most fifteen years, while a Muslim man convicted of killing a Buddhist youth received a life sentence. Prosecutions of those involved on both sides are continuing, but outcomes such as this have led some observers to question the ability of the Burmese legal system to dispense justice equally.

Monks were again in the headlines in June 2013 when it was reported that participants at a monastic conference were preparing a draft law that would put severe restrictions on inter-faith marriage and penalize Muslim men who married Buddhist women without converting. This law taps into longstanding fears and rumors in Myanmar that Muslims are attempting to undermine Buddhism by marrying Buddhist women, making their children Muslim. Some supporters of the law framed it as designed to protect women’s rights, but women’s groups in Myanmar have almost universally condemned the law as patronizing and ineffective. Despite public criticism, some monks have remained vociferous champions of the law and it has also been taken up as policy by at least one major political party.

Challenges Facing Myanmar’s Muslims

While there have been limited connections between Burmese Muslims and Muslim communities outside of Myanmar in the past, one effect of the recent violence has been to bring Myanmar’s Muslims into the global spotlight and forge stronger international links. This could have a positive effect, making more people aware of the discrimination and challenges Muslims face in Myanmar and also allowing for cross-cultural intra-religious exchanges. It might be particularly helpful for Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar to learn from the ways in which other states have engaged with minority Muslim populations within their borders in more constructive and empowering ways.

Unfortunately there is also the possibility of more negative effects, that could inflame tensions and radicalize Muslims in Myanmar. The Ar Ramah website (a mouthpiece for Jemaah Islamiah, the Southeast Asian terrorist organization responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings) recently posted photos of what it claims are Rohingyas in Myanmar conducting military training in preparation for jihad. The Burmese government has refuted this, and other video clips such as these that have shown up in the past have been proven to have been filmed in Bangladesh.

Some have speculated that the July 7, 2013 bombing of a Buddhist temple at Bodh Gaya could be a retaliatory action in response to violence against Muslims in Myanmar. This theory is particularly prominent among militant Burmese Buddhists. Although the Indian police havemade several arrests, no group has publicly claimed responsibility and Muslim groups in Myanmar have strongly denounced the bombing. Just this past weekend (July 21) another bomb went off — this time at a Buddhist sermon in Mandalay, Myanmar, very close to where the controversial monk U Wirathu was preaching.There was no immediate immediate claim of responsibility and U Wirathu was unhurt.

Acts of sectarian violence — that have left hundreds dead and thousands fleeing their homes — seem likely to continue.

Should connections (or even the appearance of connections) between Burmese Muslim organizations and international Islamic organizations increase (whether the groups are militant or not), it will only strengthen Burmese Buddhist claims and fears of an international Muslim conspiracy to take over the country. The Rohingya in particular are a group with few allies inside the country. Even leaders of Muslim organizations who support Rohingya citizenship claims are reluctant to speak out or even mention the controversial “Rohingya” label. Western support for the Rohingya as a persecuted community has been necessary for their continued survival (President Obama called upon Burmese President Thein Sein to end the persecution of the Rohingya during a May 2013 meeting) but has also contributed to the Burmese perception of them as “foreign” and has alienated the Rakhine Buddhist population, many of whom are also living in conditions of poverty and oppression. There is a clear danger that the current separation of Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, and the persistence of refugee camp-like conditions in many areas, could lead to a more institutionalized apartheid arrangement.

Given the discrimination that they have faced in the past and the fact that they likely cannot rely on the state to protect them in a crisis, it is understandable that the Muslim community in Myanmar has turned inward, both in its religious practices and in its social interactions. While a number of Muslim groups have been active in charitable activities beyond their own religious community (the Muslim Free Hospital in Yangon is one of the most prominent examples), the perception among non-Muslims is that the Islamic community is insular and that Islamic religious practice is suspiciously private. These perceptions are fueled by the global narrative of the “War on Terror” that presumes that every mosque or madrasa is a weapons garrison or terrorist training ground, an impression cemented by popular portrayals of Islamic militancy in the international media and films that Burmese are exposed to.

As part of their response to the ongoing religious violence and tensions, some members of Myanmar’s Muslim community are taking a proactive approach to countering rumors and misconceptions. On June 12, 2013, the Unity for Peace Network (an interfaith Muslim group) held a press conference where representatives of different Islamic sects clarified such issues as the meaning of “jihad,” the purpose of the mosque, and the interpretation of various Koranic verses. This group has also been working with imams in Yangon and other cities to standardize and publicize both sermons and curricula at madrasas. This will be a long process and not without challenges (witness the inability or unwillingness of the Buddhist hierarchy to censure the anti-Muslim hate sermons of some 969 monks), but is a welcome contribution to growing efforts at inter-faith understanding.

Matthew J. Walton is Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford University. His main areas of research are Burmese Buddhist political thought and ethnic identity and conflict in Myanmar.


Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

6 Responses

  1. This is not entirely a Muslim vs Buddhist conflict. The Panthay (Chinese Muslim) are being well treated by the Myanmese government and they even sheltered the Rohingyas.

    The main reason for pogroms against Rohingyas is because they are waging insurgencies against Myanmar.

    They lost the war and they are at the receiving end of Myanmese anger now.

  2. I find the title you gave this blog post odd. Why are you questioning if Buddhist extremist are attacking “helpless” Muslims? Why is the title even framed in such a way?

    The title of the article at IslamiCommentary is “A Primer on the Roots of Buddhist/Muslim Conflict in Myanmar, and A Way Forward” which is a much more accurate description of the article (which is a great read.)

    It also seems like the news coming out of Myanmar is rather clear (or as clear as these things can be)that the violence is primarily the result of Buddhist/Burman extremism, racism and nationalism.

    The article itself downplays any links between the Muslim communities in Myanmar and organized violence as being either propaganda or isolated cases.

  3. Very strange indeed. The anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Buddhist monks seems so close to that of the Hindu Nationalist parties of India. They appear to say the same things about their Muslim citizens. This cannot be a co-incidence can it? Just before the massacres in Gujarat during 2002 the same rhetoric was used.

  4. Its becoming an issue in Sri Lanka as well. The minority within a minority Tamil Muslims were always in a vulnerable position, but with the wipe out of overall Tamil resistance, now even Sinhalese Muslims seem to be coming under attack, led by hardline Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists.

  5. I recently traveled across Myanmar on motor-bikes with my brother. We passed through Meiktila on our way from Bagan to Lake Inlay. I recognized that there were muslims in town by their caps and beards and through other clues and was delighted to recognize yet another fabric of diversity in this fascinating part of the world, bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh, with food that tastes exactly like that, my absolute favorite cuisine in South-East Asia.
    A week later, the town was in flames, homes and temples were systematically destroyed, and bodies were lined up in the street to be counted, overwhelmingly of the muslim minority. The violence was said to be triggered by a dispute in a jewelry store (probably involving a pawn transaction) between a buddhist customer and a muslim shop-owner.
    969 graffiti was said to be left as a calling card in the aftermath and the NYTimes reported that a monk brandishing a sword demanded data-cards from assembled photo-journalists, “or else”. They also reported that a monk was driving a bull-dozer taking down homes and mosques in the muslim quarter, then revised both reports to ‘men wearing the robes of a monk.’
    U Wirathu was all too happy to stand as the main apologist for this violence, concocting self-incriminating stories of muslim villagers hiding in fear in their mosques yet holding bottles of acid as weapons ‘so we had to, you know, deal with them’ (my approximation, read his words here: link to
    Westerners often see Buddhism as an item in a new-age gift shop, as a holder for scented candles. The stone reliefs at Angkor Wat tell a different story, as does reports out of Myanmar. I certainly haven’t made sense out of it yet, my guess is only that the onset of real contact with the rest of the world is causing a majority to feel out of control, and thus attack a vulnerable target. I will reread this article to broaden my understanding, but I will tell this final anecdote:
    Many of the places a tourist or a local traveler would visit are the wonderful Buddhist temples. In the temples that I did go to there is always a wall were photos of the resident monk hierarchy are displayed. If it’s an important temple, the same wall will also have an equal amount of portraits of generals and other such fellows in olive khaki, a carnation in their lapel, maybe even a tear in their eye, making tribute, shaking hands with the clergy. Look into the eyes of those monks if you get a chance, or just look into the eyes of U Wirathu. Man is a social animal. And these are our leaders.

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