New Media Project: Islamophobia in Myanmar

Posted on December 12, 2013 by

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Maria Vachlon

World Religions Final Project

            For my final project I am going to look at Islamophobia in the context of the Myanmar, the dangerous repercussions that Islamophobia can lead to, and why Islamophobia is a real threat to society.  Islamophobia is typically thought of as westerners or Christians hating or fearing and being prejudiced against Islam and Muslim people.  However, Islamophobia is a much more widespread phenomenon than that, because Islamophobia simply means the hatred or fear of Islam or Muslim people and this can be done by any person or demographic of people, though it is thought to be more common in the west.  This is exemplified by the violence that is currently occurring in Myanmar, which is mainly focused on Muslim people, and is being committed by radical Buddhist groups.  The violence is occurring largely out of a hatred and fear of the Muslim people on the part of the Buddhist radicals living in Myanmar. 

            Here is a little background information on Myanmar and the tensions between Buddhist and Muslim groups.  The Rohingya people are an ethnic group that reside in Myanmar, and the majority of them are practicing Muslims.  The Rohingya have a history of being persecuted and discriminated against by the government, before, after, and throughout the British colonial rule over Myanmar the Rohingya people have been continually persecuted and there have been many attempts to cleanse the country of these people.  It has been claimed that they came into the country during the British colonial rule from Bengal illegally and should be expelled, along with a variety of other reasons that they should be expelled, all of them having one theme in common, hatred of the Rohingya people.  BBC has referred to the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minority groups. 

ImageOne of the most astounding things about the Islamophobia in Myanmar is that it is being led largely by Buddhist monks.  This is alarming because of the power and influence that the monks hold and their ability to persuade their followers to join their cause in discriminating against and persecuting the Muslims that live in Myanmar. One example of this is Buddhist Nationalist U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of the 969 Buddhist Nationalist Movement.  Wirathu gives sermons to Buddhist laypeople encouraging them to shun Muslims in businesses and communities.  The way that Wirathu is using his power as a monk to sway the opinions of many Buddhist lay people and followers is alarming, because it could allow the Islamophobia in Myanmar to become worse faster.  The 969 movement gets its name because Wirathu encourages local Buddhist people to shop and do business only with Buddhist store owners, and the way of determining this is whether a 969 poster is posted in the store’s window.  The number 969 is a number that symbolizes the Buddha’s teachings and practices.  The members of the 969 movement view Islam as a threat to their national identity and feel that it needs to be removed.  They view themselves not as terrorists, but as protectors of race, language, and the Buddhist religion. 

When the violence began it was focused on the Rohingya people, but since then it has grown to include all Muslims living in Myanmar.  The Rohingya are largely Muslim, so the violence has shifted to a fear of Islam rather than the Rohingya people, making it a current issue of Islamophobia. 

Many Buddhists that do not support the 969 movement feel that they are unable to speak out and voice their opinions because they are a minority amongst a Buddhist majority that passionately hates the Muslim minority in Myanmar.  This is even reflected in the way that Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and candidate for president in Myanmar, because she is unwilling to directly say that she does not agree with and does not support the 969 movement, because she is afraid to lose the support of the majority of people in Myanmar and under the new democratic system this could cost her the presidency.  This is how many of the Buddhists feel that oppose the 969 movement, they are such a minority that they feel that they are unable to voice their opinion without disastrous repercussions.  The people are not allowed to call the killing of an elderly Muslim woman cruel, because this would favor one side over the other, however remaining silent about the cruelty of the violence in Myanmar is clearly choosing the side of the Buddhist Nationalists. 

ImageHowever, in a statement made by Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace Prize winner crossed over onto the side of the Buddhist nationalists when she said that the Buddhist people are experiencing the same amount of fear and pain that the Muslim minority is experiencing in Myanmar.  This is simply not true, and statements like this give more power and justification to the Buddhist Nationalist cause.  The Buddhists in Myanmar that disagree with the Buddhist Nationalists do experience a certain degree of fear of being found out, but as a whole Buddhists in Myanmar do not experience the same kind of fear that the Muslims in the country do, because they are not being persecuted.  They are not having their homes destroyed.  They are not having their elderly killed.  They are not discriminated against.  The Buddhists in Myanmar do not experience the same kind of fear that the Muslim minority does, and a statement that they do takes the side of the Buddhist Nationalists and further enables their cause. 

There are also multiple accounts of elderly Muslim people being killed in the violence that has occurred against the Muslim minority in Myanmar.  This is surprising and increasingly terrifying, because in the Myanmar culture the elderly are cherished and well taken care of, so to hear multiple accounts of elderly people being killed shows that the Islamophobia has gotten to a stage that the hatred is becoming blind and the killing is being targeted at a group of people that are becoming dehumanized in people’s minds.  It has been said that the building blocks of a genocide are in place, and many precautions should be taken in order to avoid a genocide from breaking out. 

ImageThere were also many protests that occurred when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation delegation was scheduled to visit Myanmar.  Many Buddhist monks held protests and demonstrations in the hope of preventing the OIC from visiting Myanmar.  The OIC has been advised not to visit, because its goal is to encourage peace and cooperation, however their presence in Myanmar might have the opposite effect because of the current tensions in Myanmar between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority.  

Overall, there are many complex facets, causes, and manifestations of the Islamophobia that is currently occurring in Myanmar, but it boils down to the hatred and fear of Muslims by the Buddhist majority.  This hatred and fear has taken on a life of its own and if it is not gotten under control in the near future it will have devastating results for the Muslims in Myanmar.  Islamophobia is a dangerous thing and it is not only something that exists in the west from the Christian viewpoint, it is a phenomenon that is occurring throughout the world.

Bibliography

Akins, Harrison.  “No place for Islam? Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar,” Aljazeera, 10/18/13, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/10/no-place-islam-buddhist-nationalism-myanmar-2013101710411233906.html.

Beech, Hannah.  “The Face of Buddhist Terrorism,” Time, 7/1/13, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146000,00.html.

Munisha.  “Statement on Buddhist Violence against Muslims in Burma,” The Buddhist Center, 10/23/13, http://thebuddhistcentre.com/eca/statement-buddhist-violence-against-muslims-burma.

Mitton, Rodger.  “Suu Kyi Shows Her Real Intent,” The Phenom Penh Post, 11/10/13, http://www.phnompenhpost.com/columns/suu-kyi-shows-her-real-intent

Al-Awsat, Asharq.  “Buddhists in Myanmar Protest OIC’s Upcoming Visit,” Asharq Al-Awsat, 11/12/13, http://www.aawsat.net/2013/11/article55322128

Fuller, Thomas.  “Elderly Woman’s Killing Lays Bare Myanmar’s Religious Divisions,” New York Times, 11/9/13, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/world/asia/elderly-womans-killing-lays-bare-myanmars-religious-divisions.html?_r=3&

Zarni, Muang.  “Aung San Suu Kyi and the World of Buddhist Islamophobia,” Aljazeera, 11/3/13, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/aung-san-suu-kyi-world-buddhist-islamophobia-201311342243286354.html

Linthicum, Kate.  “Buddhist-vs.-Muslim Violence Threatens Reforms in Myanmar,” The Seattle Times, 11/2/13, http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2022171259_burmastrifexml.html

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