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They are playing with fire

As Myanmar has grown more polarised, there have been nascent signs of a backlash against anti-Muslim sermonising. Myanmar’s implicit support for the radical Buddhists is a dangerous trend. Chiranjib Haldar writes.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2013 08:03 IST

In Myanmar, different communities have coexisted peacefully for years and so the recent upsurge of nationalism in the country — in the form of the 969 movement — has attracted criticism from around the world. The ruling regime has been quietly supportive of the movement and its policy of appeasement will have long-term implications for south and Southeast Asia.

The divide between the Rohingyas and the Buddhists have been aggravated by the discriminatory practice of the one-child policy, particularly for the Rohingyas and a draft law that bans Buddhists from marrying Muslims. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people — mostly Muslims — out of their homes. As Myanmar has grown more polarised, there have been nascent signs of a backlash against anti-Muslim sermonising. Among the most disappointed with cyclical outbreaks of violence and hateful rhetoric are those who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a peaceful uprising led by Buddhist monks against military rule. Many think that hardline Buddhist elements want to harness a nationalist momentum ahead of the elections in 2015.

Whether it is Rakhine or Meiktila or Lashio in the Shan state bordering China, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists are always a cause of worry for India and Bangladesh because there is always the threat of migration. More than 2 lakh homeless Rohingya Muslims have been displaced within Myanmar and now with their back against the wall, they could enter the neighbouring countries.

The porous border between Myanmar, India and Bangladesh has presented demographic challenges for all three countries. In 1978, the Burmese military conducted an operation termed Naga Min or Dragon King. The 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.

In Myanmar, Muslims first arrived as traders in the 11th century from Central Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. The Muslim population in Myanmar today includes those of Indian ancestry, Malay ancestry, Chinese ancestry and some of mixed ancestry. In the past, anti-Muslim riots did occur in Mandalay in 1997 and Taungoo in 2001. While these incidents involved monks, many feel the incidents were organised by the junta to deflect attention from other issues or to galvanise nationalist sentiment.

The 969 movement is the public face of the current resurgent Buddhist nationalism. More than radical Buddhist nationalism what’s more perturbing is that those at the forefront of the upheaval are monks. But many Buddhists in Myanmar have opined that the imbroglio has been propped up by the media and many organisations of Buddhist monks have protested against the 969 movement.

Violent anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar prove that militant Buddhism is no longer an oxymoron. As Myanmar begins to open up, such religious violence would only drag it backwards. When Yangon banned the Time magazine’s cover story on ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’, President Thein Sein’s communiqué said the article ‘is creating misconceptions about Buddhism, a religion practised by the majority of Myanmar’s population’. But the regime’s implicit ‘support’ for the 969 movement may only make things worse for Myanmar’s minorities as well as the nation.

Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on South Asian affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 19, 2013 22:46 IST