Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: Muslim Minorities in the Asia-Pacific

From our 1 May LDESP Asia-Pacific News Update.

The recent Boston Bombings carried out by Chechen-American brothers have thrust non-Arab Muslims into the fore of media scrutiny. While the Chechen conflict and Russian response has long been simmering, more recently there has been an uptick in violent incidents related to Muslim minorities further east in the Asia-Pacific.  Of note, April saw Buddhist nationalists terrorizing the country’s Muslims in Burma and the deadliest clash between Chinese authorities and the country’s Muslim minority Uighurs since 2009.


After decades of repressive military rule brought by a coup d’etat in 1962, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been seeing a gradual period of reform. In 2010, the military rule was replaced by a military-backed civilian government and renowned pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. While news surrounding the country’s rebirth has seen many successes amongst the difficulties, the state of Burma’s Muslims seems to be on the decline.

In an opinion article for the Myanmar-focused publication Mizzima, Col. R. Hariharan, retired Indian Military Intelligence Specialist on South Asia for the South Asian Analysis Group, explains the roots of the recent tensions as well as its implications in “The Rise of Anti-Muslim Sentiments in Myanmar” (excerpted below):

President Obama with Burmese Nobel Laureate and opposition leader for the National League of Democracy Party Aung San Suu Kyi. Image source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, “President Obama Meets with Aung San Suu Kyi,” 20 Sept. 2012

President Obama with Burmese Nobel Laureate and opposition leader for the National League of Democracy Party Aung San Suu Kyi.
Image source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, “President Obama Meets with Aung San Suu Kyi,” 20 Sept. 2012

“Myanmar’s fledgling democracy faced yet another obstacle to its progress when anti-Muslim violence flared up in the central Myanmar town of Meiktila in March. It quickly spread to six other smaller townships in Thayarwaddy District in Bago Region. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), it also spread to 11 other townships in Mandalay and Bago divisions, where Muslim neighborhoods were ransacked.

According to the government a total of 43 people were killed and 93 were injured in the riots, most of them in Meiktila; 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed. Police said 68 detainees were being charged for their role in the acts of violence. (…)

These riots have unnerved the Muslim community which had been watching with unease when Rohingya Muslims became the target of ethno-religious violence in Rakhine State in November 2012. (…)

The anti-Rohingya Muslim riots left about 140 killed and rendered 100,000 homeless. They became the latest boatpeople fleeing Myanmar to find refuge wherever they can as neighbouring Bangladesh refused to accept any more of them to the 110,000 Rohingya refugees already there. Police present on the location initially did not react at all. It took action only after much of the damage had been done. Rohingyas had alleged that the local border militia and police colluded in perpetrating the violence. This would indicate local authorities tend to condone such communal acts rather than act quickly to defuse the situation.

Muslims in Myanmar

Muslims have been in Myanmar for over a thousand years. Islam came with Moghul invaders from India and Sultan Suleiman of Yunnan. Anti-Muslim sentiments among Burmese Buddhists have their roots in the persecutions and forced conversions carried out among Buddhists during the Moghul rule.

Mosque in Yangon, Burma Image Source: “Muslims Targeted During More Violence against Burma’s Minority Community,” The Independent

Mosque in Yangon, Burma
Image Source:Muslims Targeted During More Violence against Burma’s Minority Community,” The Independent

Though Buddhists consider Muslims a single entity, there are distinct Muslim communities with their own ethnic linkages and cultural history. The distinct groups include: descendants of Burmese [Myanmar] converts to Islam; Muslims of Indian descent who have settled in Myanmar; Muslims who had migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh); Zarbari Muslims who are children of South Asian Muslim fathers and Burmese mothers; Panthay Muslims of Hui Chinese origin from Yunnan who settled in Myanmar’s northern border areas; and Rohingya Muslims inhabiting Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.

During British colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century, anti-Indian sentiments started rising among local people when Indians started dominating business and bureaucracy, Chettiar moneylenders seized control of lands, and cheap Indian labor deprived the ordinary Burmese opportunities to earn a living.

In that period, nearly half the Indians in Myanmar were Muslims. As a result of this, anti-Indian sentiments had anti-Muslim sentiment as an inevitable part. So when anti-Indian riots broke out in Yangon in 1930 killing hundreds of Indians, Muslims also suffered. On the other hand, Muslims were also seen as symbols of British colonial rule; according to historians the nationalist-inspired anti-Muslim riot of 1938 was actually against the British rulers.

In the run-up to independence, the Burma Muslim Congress (BMC), the nodal organization of Burmese Muslims, fully supported the Gen. Aung San-led Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom Party’s (AFPFL) national struggle. Though Muslim leaders were included in the post-independence cabinet, a few months later Prime Minister U Nu’s attitude towards Muslims underwent a change. The BMC was asked to leave the AFPFL. Subsequently when U Nu made Buddhism the state religion, it was much against the wishes of Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority communities. Restrictions were imposed on Halal slaughtering of cattle.

When Gen. Ne Win seized power the attitude towards Muslims further hardened. He expelled Muslims from the army. Islamist violence perpetrated in Indonesia and actions like the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan are also said to have touched off anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

As anti-Muslim sentiments among sections of population have a long history in Myanmar, it remains a potential destabilizing force. This is yet another issue that could provide a level of legitimacy for the army to take charge of the situation reminiscent of its foray to capture power in 1962.

What do the riots indicate?

Both the anti-Rohingya violence and anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila were triggered by minor incidents involving individuals from the two communities. Such incidents were quickly exploited by fringe elements to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments among the Buddhist majority resulting in well-organized acts of violence.

In Rakhine and Meiktila, Buddhist mobs led by some monks spearheaded the anti-Muslims violence. The destruction was systematic and well planned. As violence spread quickly in different regions, a level of networking and coordination probably exists between Buddhist fringe elements in different parts of the country.

In the case of Rohingya violence, a number of sporadic incidents preceded the outburst of violence. These incidents were ignored by the authorities presumably because officially, Rohingyas are not recognized as Myanmar citizens.

Though they have been living in the region since pre-independence days, Myanmar’s discriminatory citizenship laws are weighted heavily against people of foreign origin. This would indicate that xenophobic tendencies continue to influence official thinking.

Destruction of Muslim Neighborhoods Image Source: BBC, “What is Behind Burma’s Wave of Religious Violence”

Destruction of Muslim Neighborhoods
Image Source: BBC, “What is Behind Burma’s Wave of Religious Violence

Local political leaders including those of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were either helpless or ineffective in taking any action to curb the violence. Unless political constituency and democratic government show themselves capable of handling such critical situations, they provide an opening for the military to prove themselves as an essential component of “democratic rule”. This is what happened during the anti-Muslim riots when the army had to step in to control the situation.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, who commands wide popularity across the board, disappointed many with her inability to handle the issue when ethnic question got mixed up with religious extremism. Coming in the wake of her demonstrated reluctance to take positive action during anti-Rohingya riots, it showed a lack of self-confidence in taking action on issues affecting the majority community.

This could have a far-reaching impact not only on her leadership credibility but also in the NLD’s political credibility particularly when vested interests kindle divisive elements for gaining political advantage in times of election.

The sooner the democratic elements organize themselves to prevent such communal flare-ups, the better it is for democracy. This is more so when Myanmar is coming out of its shell and needs the goodwill of the international community for its peaceful development.

In the context of Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has two international dimensions. The first is it could antagonize a prosperous segment of Asian investors among the Gulf countries from investing in Myanmar’s development. Secondly, Islamic extremism which is staging a last-ditch fight in neighbouring Bangladesh and in some of the ASEAN countries, might find a potential opportunity in Myanmar to spread its tentacles.” (Mizzima)

While the violence seems to be disparate and disconnected, the growing anti-Muslim sentiment is worrying for observers who recognize a pattern from other mass atrocities, for example the “969 grassroots movement.” Alex Bookbinder, a writer based in Rangoon, Burma, writes in The Atlantic about “969: The Strange Numerological Basis for Burma’s Religious Violence” (excerpted below):

“One number has become indelibly associated with these attacks – 969, a “grassroots” Buddhist nationalist movement that many claim is supported by elements within the military. While 969’s unofficial leaders claim that the movement is a non-violent response to a Buddhist society under strain from “foreign” influence, its rhetoric brings to mind the kind of language associated with the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.

969 has its ideological roots in a book written in the late 1990s by U Kyaw Lwin, a functionary in the ministry of religious affairs, and its precepts are rooted in a traditional belief in numerology. Across South Asia, Muslims represent the phrase bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim, or “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful,” with the number 786, and businesses display the number to indicate that they are Muslim-owned. 969’s proponents see this as evidence of a Muslim plot to conquer Burma in the 21st century, based on the implausible premise that 7 plus 8 plus 6 is equal to 21. The number 969 is intended be 786’s cosmological opposite, and represents the “three jewels:” the nine attributes of the Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, or monastic order.

U Kyaw Lwin’s ideas came to prominence in November of last year, when a religious order in Mon State – the Gana Wasaka Sangha – began to invoke them in local anti-Muslim campaigns. Since January, taxis, buses, and businesses across Rangoon have begun to proudly display its brightly colored emblem. (…) 


Buddhists Identify themselves with Stickers, seen here on the side of the table Image Source: BBC, “What is Behind Burma’s Wave of Religious Violence”

Buddhists Identify themselves with Stickers, seen here on the side of the table
Image Source: BBC, “What is Behind Burma’s Wave of Religious Violence

“The Muslims are very smart. They use their smarts to [threaten] our Buddhist society. Some Muslims are good, but there are too many who are Ali Babas (thieves),” he said. “They get money from Muslim countries, and they want to conquer us and destroy Buddhism. They are foreigners, they should feel lucky we treat them well as guests.”

The figure often identified as the de-facto leader of 969 is a monk named Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious conflict and released as part of a general amnesty in January 2012. The content of his sermons, distributed via DVDs he produces at his monastery in Mandalay, would not be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies.

As is often the case when minorities are scapegoated, Wirathu claims that Muslims control Burma’s economy. While it is true that some Muslims have achieved substantial wealth in certain sectors – such as construction – the notion that they are economically dominant is laughable. None of the cronies closest to the military – the oligarchs who truly dominate Burma’s economy – are Muslim.” (The Atlantic) 

Human Rights Watch recently published a report on the events, “All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya.” Voice of America contextualized the report in light of current international efforts to capitalize on the country’s successes. “HRW Accuses Burma of Ethnic Cleansing” (excerpted below):

“Matthew Smith is a Burma researcher with Human Rights Watch.  He said officials and security allowed extremist politicians and monks to incite anti-Muslim rumors in Rakhine state, also known as Arakan. He says they then did little to stop the bloodshed. “Not only did they fail to intervene, but government security forces and authorities destroyed mosques, effectively blocked humanitarian aid to Rohingya populations and at times acted alongside Arakanese to forcibly displace Muslims,” he said. “Security forces raided Muslim homes and villages, at times shooting at villagers, looting homes and businesses, rounding up people of all ages, including teenagers and children as young as eight years old.”

The report, titled “All You Can Do is Pray”, is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, many of them eyewitnesses. Some of the worst incidents include a massacre of 70 Rohingya on October 23, 2012 in Yan Thei village.  Despite advanced warning of an attack, security disarmed the Rohingya of sticks and other simple weapons and then failed to protect them from Buddhist mobs. 

Among them were 28 children hacked to death, half of them less than five years old. According to official figures, the total death toll from two rounds of clashes in June and October was about 200 people with more than 100,000 left homeless – the vast majority of them Rohingya Muslims.HRW_report

But, Human Rights Watch says it uncovered evidence of at least four mass graves created or overseen by local security, raising concerns that the death toll could be higher. Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for the New York-based group.  He said it is calling for an independent international investigation and for authorities to be held responsible. “There are no indications that the government has seriously investigated or attempted to hold accountable those responsible for planning, organizing or participating in the violence,” he said.  “Government security forces either did nothing to stop the violence or participated in it.”

A Burma government spokesman was not immediately available to respond to the accusations, but authorities have in the past strongly denied security forces participated in attacks.  Officials claim they were simply overwhelmed by mob violence and have downplayed the attacks as communal rather than largely one-sided against Muslims.

The report comes as the European Union is meeting to discuss lifting economic sanctions against Burma.  The EU and others, including the United States, suspended sanctions last year to reward Burma’s democratic reforms. Robertson said it is too early to lift sanctions as benchmarks for progress have not been met and it would diminish the EU’s leverage. “Essentially, in our view, the EU member countries are ditching measures that have motivated the current progress on human rights and gambling on the goodwill of Burma’s government and military to keep their word to keep reforms on track,” he added.” (Voice of America)

Aung Zaw, the founding editor of a news organization of Burmese journalists, offers some interesting insight into the notion that these ethno-religious tensions are a manifestation of internal political struggles between reformers and hardliners. “Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?” (excerpted below):

“When I returned to my homeland last year — for the first time in 24 years — I witnessed a rising wave of extreme nationalism and anti-Muslim hate speech. I heard senior army officers and government ministers express unfounded fears that Muslims would force their religion on Buddhists and try to “steal” Buddhist women. These hatemongers said that Saudi Arabia was secretly financing Muslim businesses and mosques, and that the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in the west, were being joined en masse by illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

“If we don’t deter them, the western gate will break,” one senior minister told me, referring to Arakan State, which borders Bangladesh and is home to most Rohingyas. In his view, human rights did not apply to Muslims. Although many culprits have been suggested, I have no doubt that national officials bear some responsibility, and that the violence suggests a power struggle within the elite. Infighting between hard-line and moderate forces in the government, which took power two summers ago under the moderate general Thein Sein, is no secret. His cabinet, Parliament and the army remain dominated by holdovers from the regime of the former dictator Gen. Than Shwe. Many are resisting President Thein Sein’s reforms.

The generals who ruled the country for five decades control much of the nation’s wealth, and some are close to Chinese interests that stand to be eclipsed if Myanmar deepens economic ties to the West. The anti-Muslim violence is a useful distraction from Burmese grievances against China, whose heavy-handed economic activities have bred resentments across much of Southeast Asia.

Opposition leaders note that the violence began, suspiciously, just months after the party of the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in by-elections in April 2012. Muslims were targeted with “brutal efficiency,” according to Vijay Nambiar, then the United Nations secretary general’s special adviser on Myanmar. (…)

Machete-wielding monks and militants, implicitly granted a license to kill, have been a blot on our nation and the government’s recent commitment to change. If President Thein Sein does not move quickly to stop the bloodshed, a historic opportunity for peace — and acceptance for Myanmar in the community of nations — will be lost.” (New York Times)


China Says Detains 19, Seizes Weapons after Xinjiang Unrest

Chinese police have detained 19 people and seized homemade explosives and weapons following a bloody clash between residents and officials which killed 21 people in mid-April in the restive region of Xinjiang, state media reported. The violence, in the heavily ethnic Uighur part of Xinjiang near the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, was the deadliest in the far western region since July 2009, when nearly 200 people were killed in riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. The government has labeled the violence in Kashgar’s Maralbexi county as a “terrorist attack”, though the exiled World Uyghur Congress has said the shooting and killing of a young Uighur by “Chinese armed personnel” prompted the Uighurs to retaliate. Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who call energy-rich Xinjiang home, chafe at Chinese restrictions on their culture, language and religion. China says it grants them wide-ranging freedoms. Police have now rounded up 19 people in Kashgar, Urumqi and another part of Xinjiang called Bayingolin, the official Xinhua news agency said late on 29 April. Members of the group who carried out the attack “regularly watched video clips advocating religious extremism and terrorism and attended illegal preaching ceremonies”, Xinhua said. “Since early December 2012, they had always gathered … to do physical training and to practice killing skills they had learned from the terrorist video clips,” the English language report said. It said the unidentified group had tested explosives, made bombs and remote controllers and planned to “do something big” in densely populated areas of Kashgar in the coming months. “The group members were spotted making explosives on 23 April by local police and community workers, which led to the deadly clash,” the report said. Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei said police also seized homemade explosives, weapons and East Turkistan flags, Xinhua added. China accuses armed Uighur groups of having links to Central Asian and Pakistani Islamist extremists, and of carrying out attacks to establish an independent state called East Turkistan. Many rights groups say China overplays the threat posed to justify its tough controls in Xinjiang. (Reuters)

U.S. Presses China on Uighur Rights after Unrest

The United States on 24 April urged China to safeguard the rights of its Uighur minority and carry out a transparent probe of the latest violence in which 21 people died. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell called on China to “take steps to reduce tensions and promote long-term stability in Xinjiang,” the vast and ethnically divided western region. “We urge the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of this incident and to provide all Chinese citizens — including Uighurs — the due-process protections to which they’re entitled,” he said. Chinese officials said that police officers and social workers — including 10 from the mostly Muslim Uighur community — were among the dead in gun fights on 23 April in Barchuk county, blaming the violence on “terrorists.” Advocacy groups and experts say China has produced little evidence of organized terrorism in Xinjiang and point to long-standing resentment among Uighurs over limited freedoms and the growing presence of majority Han. Ventrell said the United States was “deeply concerned” by accounts of discrimination against Uighurs and other Muslims in China. “We urge the Chinese government to cease policies that seek to restrict the practice of religious beliefs across China. But we’ve been particularly concerned about the Uighurs,” he said. China frequently voices anger at US criticism of its human rights record, although the world’s two largest economies cooperate frequently in other areas, including trade and on the showdown with Beijing’s ally North Korea. (Global Post)

The Art of Dialogue on China’s Uighur Issue

Three years after predominantly Muslim Uighurs staged a major protest against government rule in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, a small band of filmmakers and artists set out from Beijing for the restive region to take part in a joint exhibition – and to establish a cross-cultural rapport. Creating a coalition crossing the ethnic and religious boundaries that separate the Turkic-speaking Uighurs from the majority Han Chinese would not be easy. An initially peaceful Uighur protest calling for equal protection under the law turned violent in July 2009, after security forces tried to crush the demonstration. The riots that followed in the provincial capital, Urumqi, led to the death of nearly 200 people, according to Chinese government accounts. Yet during two decades of sketching slices of life in Xinjiang, Liu Xiaodong – who headed the journey to the province – said he had never directly encountered the anti-government animus that fuels the sporadic violence. The region had long been rocked by unrest. For centuries Xinjiang has been a borderland between different peoples and belief systems, and was the site of Buddhist-Muslim wars. That changed just days after he touched down in Hotan, in southern Xinjiang, last June with a group of documentary filmmakers. While setting up a tent studio along the Kashgar River to sketch and paint jade prospectors in the area, the group discovered via China’s version of Twitter that six hijackers were attempting to take over the cockpit of an airplane that had just left Hotan’s small airport. Although security officers ultimately overpowered the armed hijackers, rescuing the plane and its passengers, over the following days, “the army and police flooded into Hotan”, Liu recounted. After the incident, the Communist Party imposed martial law-like rule over the region. (…) After the mid-2009 uprising, the authorities quickly imposed a communications and information blackout across Xinjiang. All Internet access was blocked and international telephone lines were cut as security forces deployed to schools, mosques, and other public meeting places. Laptops and mobile phones were checked for any photographs of the protests or the government crackdown. (…) As part of the crackdown, the Chinese government has created a matrix of riot-proof surveillance cameras that now cover alleyways, buses, mosques  – even kindergartens – across Xinjiang’s capital. Beijing has also channeled $100m into strengthening its deployment of paramilitary People’s Armed Police across Xinjiang, while the Chinese military nationwide has expanded anti-terrorism training. (…) During Mao Zedong’s reign, until his death in 1976, the Communist Party tried to obliterate the languages, customs, religions and cultures of China’s ethnic minorities. Later, the Party tried to create at least a semblance of religious freedom for Xinjiang’s Uighurs in order to promote diplomatic ties with the oil-rich Middle East and Central Asia. (Al Jazeera)

China’s Black Hole – Let’s face it: We have little idea what’s actually going on in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Like with many events in Xinjiang, and in nearby Tibet, what actually happened remains unknown. “Fifteen people were killed in their house? That’s very suspicious to us,” said Alim Seytoff, President of the Uighur American Association, an advocacy organization. “They said they were armed with knives and axes — to kill so many people in such short time is unbelievable.” A Uighur activist in Germany told the Associated Press that local residents reported the police had sparked the incident when they shot a Uighur youth. The problem is that no Western reporters have been able to go in and investigate for themselves. Beijing’s media blockade has been successful. Instead of allowing some access to Western reporters, Beijing a few years ago resumed an old strategy and restricted their ability to enter Xinjiang, and almost entirely banned them from entering the mountainous, 460,000-square-mile Tibetan Autonomous Region. (Foreign Policy)


Tagged as: , ,

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

LDESP Twitter Feed

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

%d bloggers like this: