Myanmar's Muslims fear toxic fallout of reform

AFP , Sunday 14 Apr 2013

Myanmar's Muslims feel they are facing religious discrimination amid repeated sectarian clashes between Muslim and Buddhist factions

After generations as part of one of Asia's most ethnically diverse societies, Myanmar's Muslims fear they are becoming "scapegoats" of its reform process following a wave of religious violence.

At least 43 people died in Buddhist-Muslim clashes which broke out last month in central Myanmar where mosques were burned down and Muslim homes were destroyed.

The unrest -- which followed a wave of religious bloodshed in western Myanmar last year -- has instilled fear into the country's Muslims, some of whose families had lived peacefully alongside Buddhists for generations.

"All Muslims living in Myanmar are worried about this. What will happen to our faith? How can we live in this Buddhist society?" said Nyunt Maung Shein, president of the country's Islamic Religious Affairs Council.

"Why are we so miserable that our men and women, children, students are brutally killed? Muslims are scapegoats in this transition period from the brutal junta."

Last year at least 180 people were killed in the western state of Rakhine in clashes between local Buddhists and Rohingya -- a Muslim minority treated with hostility by most Burmese who see them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

While the Rohingya -- described by the UN as among the most-persecuted minorities on the planet -- have long been denied Myanmar citizenship, the Muslims targeted in last month's unrest are Myanmar nationals.

The apparent trigger for the latest violence was a quarrel between a Muslim gold shop owner and Buddhist customers in the town of Meiktila. Soon afterwards, a monk was killed by Muslims.

The violence escalated into a street riot that unleashed Buddhist-led bloodshed around the region.

Some monks were involved in the unrest while others are behind a nationalistic campaign calling for a boycott of shops owned by Muslims.

The surge in Islamophobia is a major challenge for President Thein Sein's reformist government which took office two years ago after the end of decades of harsh rule by a military that largely suppressed religious tensions.

"We're oppressed by fear, sorrow and doubt," said Kyaw Nyein, legal consultant and senior member of Jamiat-Uloma-El Islam, an organisation of religious scholars.

"Even if the government is willing to cure the disease, it is going to take decades."

The country's transition from junta rule is proving a test for all of society, including the security forces, he said.

"Previously, there was one military command that would stop any event," he said. "Now it's a civil administration. There are so many steps that need to be taken before (there is) action."

Myanmar's Muslims officially account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.

But local Muslim organisations believe the real figure is at least double that -- and the proportion is possibly even higher in Yangon, the former capital and main commercial city, which is home to several Muslim neighbourhoods.

In Meiktila an estimated 30 percent of the population is Muslim, including many who came from China decades ago as merchants. Others hail from Bangladesh, although the majority came from India during British colonial rule.

Whatever their heritage, Muslims are widely considered as foreigners, said Alexandra de Marsan, an anthropologist with the Paris-based National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations.

"There have been very few conversions" to Islam in Myanmar, she explained. "Most Muslims are descendants of foreigners from India or other countries."

The recent violence triggered international alarm and brought calls for Thein Sein's government to take swift action to quell the bloodshed.

Rights groups have also accused police of failing to stop the violence, which has calmed since the former general appeared on national television on March 28 and vowed a tough response against those behind the attacks.

Even so in cities such as Yangon -- which has so far remained largely peaceful -- Muslims are still living in fear. A fire that killed 13 teenagers at a Muslim school in early April added to the tensions, although the authorities insisted the blaze was accidental.

"Everyone is scared, even me," said Kyaw Nyein. "Every night there are rumours. We are under pressure."

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