Myanmar's Muslim sideshow

By Cem Ozturk

As the world continues to glare at Myanmar's ruling

junta for its ongoing oppression of the country's

popular democracy movement, it is hardly by

coincidence that tensions between Buddhists and

Muslims, in the past instigated by Yangon in times of

political crisis, are on the rise again. 

Some in Myanmar point the finger at alleged new

"terrorists" among the Muslim minority. Do these

allegations represent a heightened Islamist presence

in Myanmar, or is this just the inner grumblings of a

regime hoping to use the "war on terror" for

desperately needed international support? 

With red robes, a freshly shaven head and a look of

serene indifference across his face, the seated monk

was a near perfect emulation of the gold image of

Buddha placed against the far wall. His words,

however, were far from tranquil. 

"We have a problem in Myanmar; we have a problem here

in Mandalay. The problem is called Islam. There are

many new Muslims in Mandalay from Pakistan [and

Bangladesh]. These people are thieves and terrorists.

They do not respect our religion and our women. We are

Buddhist, and we are peaceful, but we must protect


The scene was a Buddhist seminary adjacent to Shwe In

Bin Monastery in Mandalay - Myanmar's second largest

city. In this deeply Buddhist nation, the monkhood is

second only to the government in public influence. The

abbot, a charismatic Burman named Win Rathu, is a

highly respected leader among the Mandalay clergy

whose tough talk has earned him the Hollywood-esque

nickname "The Fighting Monk". He is widely accepted as

the leader of a growing anti-Muslim movement. 

Several weeks prior to his conversation with Asia

Times Online (September 14), he gave a speech on the

matter which attracted a voluntary audience of nearly

3,000 monks - a substantial number by all accounts,

and one that reflects the seriousness with which the

perceived Muslim threat is being taken by the


This perceived threat is nothing less than the largest

religious minority in Myanmar. Numbering approximately

2 million people, Myanmar's Muslims comprise at least

4 percent of the overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist

state - a percentage as large as neighboring

Thailand's. The percentage is very likely to be even

higher as the ruling junta in Yangon refuses to

recognize a large number of Muslims as citizens, and

furthermore, all official statistics from the Myanmar

government are known to be far from reliable at best,

and completely fabricated to fit the government's

needs at worst. 

There are at least four ethnically distinct Muslim

communities in Myanmar, all of which are Sunni. The

ethnically Chinese Hui, with roots in Yunnan, dominate

much of the cross-border trade in Mandalay and the

north. Indian and Pakistani Muslims, who arrived with

British colonial rule, are still found all over the

country, most evident in Yangon and Mandalay. The

ethnically Burman Muslims were converted in the same

wave of Indian and Arab traders and scholars that

influenced Thailand and Malaysia between the 9th and

14th centuries, and live throughout the central

plains. The largest, also the poorest, Muslim ethnic

group in Myanmar today is that of the Rohingyas. This

struggling community shares both a border and a common

cultural heritage with Bangladesh's Bengali Muslims,

and live primarily in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine


"These Pakistanis - they are the worst ones," says Win

Rathu. "They are making it bad for everyone in

Myanmar. The real reason America put the sanctions on

us because they wanted to punish al-Qaeda, which is

here - and now we are all paying. Buddhists are

starving because of their connections to al-Qaeda." 

While Win Rathu might be the first to claim that the

US's sanctions on Myanmar are aimed at terrorists

rather than the ruling junta, he is not the first

person to claim that terrorists have mingled with

Myanmar's Muslims. International attention was drawn

to the Rohingya Muslim community when its links to

Islamist groups were discovered. Anti-terror officials

around the world took note, and so did the ruling

junta in Yangon. 

The government in Myanmar has never recognized the

Rohingyas as a native population. It sent hundreds of

thousands of them fleeing into Bangladesh in 1978

during a cleansing campaign ominously named Naga Min

(Dragon King). Similar pogroms erupted again in the

early 1990s, resulting in similarly massive migrations

of refugees. 

Most of the Rohingyas have since repatriated to

Myanmar. However, over 100,000 remain inside

Bangladesh. Some enjoy the relative protection of

United Nations refugee camps, but all live in dire

situations as refugees in a state than can scarcely

manage to support its own people. 

From the desperate conditions of these camps have

sprung several generations of small resistance groups

which have operated a low-level insurgency along the

northwestern border for some decades. Most of these

groups have sought equal religious and economic

standing in Myanmar, and a few have demanded the

creation of a separate Muslim state along the border.

All of these groups have been completely ineffective

against Myanmar's large military - battle hardened by

50 years of counter-insurgency warfare. 

The Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) is one of

these groups, and the subject of much of the world's

attention on Myanmar's Muslims. Founded in the early

1980s, the RSO has aped movements such as the Taliban

and the Kashmir-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. After a

failed merger with another Rohingya insurgent group to

form the moderate Arakan Rohingya National

Organization, the RSO split into several factions, all

claiming the name RSO. 

As the South Asia Intelligence Review reports, at

least one of the RSO's factions is known to have

enjoyed financial and technical support from a variety

of pan-Islamist organizations throughout South and

Southeast Asia, including the Bangladeshi/Pakistani

Jamaat-e-Islami, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's

Hizb-e-Islami, and most importantly, Bangladesh's

Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HuJI) - all of whom are

unquestionably linked with al-Qaeda. 

Videotapes of Bangladeshi/Rohingya mujahideen training

camps acquired by the media and US intelligence during

the October 2001 campaign in Afghanistan also support

this link, as does the fact that Rohingyas were among

some of the Taliban fighters captured by the Northern

Alliance and coalition forces. According to Islamist

network expert Subir Bhaumik, Rohingya volunteers have

been sent to international flashpoints as far away as

Kashmir and Chechnya. Further establishing the links

is the fact that Osama bin Laden himself has openly

referred to the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, as

well as his supporters there, in at least one speech. 

Back in Win Rathu's office, the tranquil smiling

continued as he switched on a digital video camera, a

Compaq PC, and an air conditioner - all incredible

luxuries for anyone in this desperately poor country,

and especially unusual material possessions for an

avowed ascetic monk. 

"There have been problems before, but the problems

have really grown in the last several years with the

Pakistani Muslims," said Wi Rathu. "They want Myanmar

to be Muslim - but Myanmar is Buddhist. They want the

rest of Asia to be Muslim and live by Muslims rules -

but we are Buddhist." 

Win Rathu's fears call to mind the stated goals of

some of the pan-Islamist jihadi groups such as Jemaah

Islamiya, which wish to see an Islamic super-state

encompassing territory from Bangladesh to Indonesia.

It is not difficult to see why this idea might be

cause for alarm. His other fears, however, call to

mind nothing but the kind of superstitions that give

rise to religious violence in the first place. 

"The Muslims are responsible for nearly all of the

crime in Myanmar: opium, theft, many rapes. They want

to deface images of the Buddha like they did in

Afghanistan. Now they mock us with these longyis [a

common traditional garment]". As he said this, three

young monks presented framed pictures of the longyis -

on which they claimed patterns of Buddhist symbols

were placed next to symbols which supposedly

represented female genitalia. The longyis, they

asserted, were worn and sold by Muslims, and were

imported from Malaysia - a Muslim country. 

It was this kind of tension which led to nationwide

sectarian riots in 2001. Violence broke out between

the two faiths in the towns of Taungoo, Prome, Sittwe,

Pegu and Mandalay, as large mobs often led by what

appeared to be Buddhist monks attacked Muslim

businesses, homes and mosques. The violence resulted

in at least nine deaths and considerable destruction

of property. 

As Human Rights Watch reported in its 2001 report,

"Crackdown on Burmese Muslims", monks, working with

the support of the government, have distributed

anti-Muslim pamphlets such as the 2001 tract "Myo

Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Hla Tai (The Fear of Losing One's

Race). Distribution of the pamphlets was also

facilitated by the Union of Solidarity and Development

Association (USDA). The USDA is the civilian support

wing of the military regime, and the same group that

recently ambushed and abducted democratic opposition

leader Aung San Su Kyi. 

While the idea of monks actually leading rioters may

seem unusual, certain details make it less so.

Myanmar's large and much feared military intelligence

service, the Directorate of Defense Security

Intelligence is commonly believed to have agents

working within the monkhood. The monks have always

been courageous supporters of the democracy movement.

It would seem that monitoring dissident monks is not

their only function. 

Human Rights Watch also reported that monks in the

2001 riots were carrying mobile phones, a luxury not

readily available to the Myanmar population - as very

few without government connections can afford them. It

is also reported that there was a clear split between

monks who provoked violence and those who did not. It

has been suggested by Human Rights Watch and others

that these facts may reflect the presence of agents

provocateur among the monks. That suggestion may not

be far off. 

"Win Rathu works for the government," said one monk to

Asia Times Online on strict condition of anonymity.

"What he says is not Buddhist. What he does is not

Buddhist. Very many monks do not support these views."

Indeed, by his own admission, Wi Ra Thu's speech was

not licensed or supported by his seniors among the

clergy. One doubts as well that it is the clergy which

finances his princely lifestyle. 

In the past, the military regime has launched major

campaigns against one or another internal minority

during times of major political crises. The logic is

clear - without internal crisis as an excuse for

government crackdowns, the State Peace and Development

Council (SPDC)has no justification for its

heavy-handed rule. Indeed, the SPDC has often been

accused of inciting such sectarian violence for its

own political ends. In February 15, 2000 testimony

before the United States Congressional Human Rights

Caucus Stephen Dun, a Christian member of the Karen

ethnic minority, related how the 1994 split between

the Buddhist and Christian factions of Karen rebels in

the south was caused by agitators. The sectarian

schism resulted in the fall of the rebels' most

important stronghold, Manerplaw, to SPDC forces - a

nearly mortal blow to the Karen rebellion. 

The 1991 scapegoating and subsequent exodus of 250,000

Rohingyas into Bangladesh occurred at a time of major

political crisis - the ruling military regime had just

been overwhelmingly defeated by the National League

for Democracy (NLD). Refusing to recognize the NLD's

victory, the regime was condemned domestically and


As the government faces economic sanctions and renewed

international condemnation for its imprisonment and

treatment of Aunt San Su Kyi from the West, one should

expect the same diversionary tactics from the regime.

The recent military campaign against Karen National

Liberation Army (KNLA) rebels in south confirms this. 

The Muslim minority is another easy target. However,

unlike the KNLA, operations against Rohingyas have the

added political value of being framed as part of the

international "war on terror". If tension continues to

escalate, setting off violence like it did in 2001 -

the same kind of desperate conditions that gave hold

to Islamist groups in the first place will be

exacerbated. A further radicalized Muslim minority

directly adjacent to a major terrorist target like

Thailand, in a region already struggling to cope with

terrorism, could indeed constitute a heightened

Islamist threat. 

If violence does once again break out, it will be

agitators like Win Rathu at the lead. And this

religious violence threatens to divert the world's

attention from the real issue in Myanmar - the

continuing deprivation of its people's prosperity by

an unpopular military dictatorship. 

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights

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