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Racism at the Heart of Fight among Buddhists and Muslims

Racism at the Heart of Fight among Buddhists and Muslims

by Richard S. Ehrlich | Bangkok, Thailand
May 21, 2013

Buddhists and Muslims are clashing with increasing ferocity in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka where minority Islamic ethnic groups blame racism by majority Buddhists more than religious intolerance.

"It is like the K.K.K. (Klu Klux Klan) in America during the period of the civil rights movement," said Myo Win, a Muslim activist based in Yangon, Myanmar, comparing recent deadly attacks by Buddhists in his Southeast Asian country with white U.S. mobs lynching blacks during the 1960s.

"We are really afraid," Myo Win said on May 9 addressing a Bangkok conference titled, "Violence in the Name of Buddhism."

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the powerful military and its civilian government representatives refuse to accept 800,000 minority Muslims as citizens.

Myanmar insists they are illegal ethnic Bengali immigrants from impoverished Muslim-majority Bangladesh, who describe themselves as indigenous ethnic Rohingya in western Rakhine state.

"There is some kind of internally racist, Orientalist, propaganda voiced against "darker-skinned" Muslims by politicians and other Buddhists," said Maung Zarni, a Buddhist from Myanmar who is a human rights activist and visiting fellow in the London School of Economics.

Stereotypes include complaints that Buddhists in "Rakhine [state] are losing their land because they are not as hard-working and thrifty as the Rohingya," Maung Zarni told the conference.

"This is not about which god they are worshipping," he said. "There is an issue of bread and butter here, a very clear economic dimension."

A nationwide Buddhist campaign known as "969" -- symbolic Buddhist numbers -- also rouses followers to boycott Muslims' businesses and not marry or hire Muslims.

It warns that Islam will soon dominate Myanmar, despite Muslims forming only five percent of the population.

The 969 campaign is led by a Mandalay-based Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, 45.

He convinces countless Buddhist shops to display his stickers, and hear his speeches on DVDs.

Hatred turned into bloodshed when 200 people died, 70 percent of them Muslims, and 120,000 people fled because Buddhist mobs torched their homes during June and October in Rakhine state, also known as Arakan.

"Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese -- backed by state security forces -- to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population," New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in April.

"We don't need to pay attention to any such reports as the Human Rights Watch," said Myanmar's Deputy Information Minister, Ye Htut.

Clashes spread to central Myanmar in March, killing 40 people on both sides and leaving thousands more Muslims homeless.

On May 10, a court imprisoned 10 Buddhist men in Rakhine, with sentences ranging from nine months to three years, because they destroyed Muslims' homes.

In neighboring Buddhist-majority Thailand, meanwhile, a quest to control potentially lucrative territory and enact Islamic sharia laws, is inspiring Muslim guerrillas to fight for autonomy or independence in the south.

More than 5,000 people on all sides have died in the fighting since 2004.

Minority ethnic Malay-Thai Muslims form a majority in Thailand's four southernmost provinces and complain of discrimination and unequal justice under Bangkok's rule.

The government's National Security Council recently began talks with some Islamist insurgents, but the two sides continue to battle.

Joined by Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) rebels, allied Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatists gave Bangkok's "Siamese imperialists" five demands on April 28.

These included amnesty for all southern insurgents.

The increasingly sophisticated rebels are using assassinations, arson, improvised bombs and other assaults to kill Thai troops, Buddhist monks, businessmen, teachers, civilians and Muslim informants.

Thailand is a non-NATO U.S. ally. Its military has been expensively trained by the Pentagon for decades, but appears confused when confronted by the hit-and-run rebels.

Allegations by international human rights groups against the military for extrajudicial executions, torture and other abuses spotlight other failings.

Nearby on the tiny island of Sri Lanka, southwest from Myanmar and Thailand, minority Muslims who are mostly ethnic Moors are threatened by Buddhist monks who are primarily from the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

A new Sri Lankan Buddhist group called "Bodu Bala Sena," or Buddhist Force, demands an island-wide boycott of Muslim businesses and demolition of a 10th century mosque in Kuragala which allegedly occupies the site of 2,000-year-old Buddhist monastery.

On May 5, Sri Lanka briefly detained opposition politician Azath Sally, leader of the Muslim National Unity Alliance.

Mr. Sally, 49, had said the government supported Buddhists who set fire to Muslim-owned businesses in March.

The Dalai Lama, who usually focuses on Tibet's Buddhists, blamed Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka for attacking Muslims in those countries.

"Killing people in the name of religion is really very sad, unthinkable," the Nobel Peace laureate told a University of Maryland audience on May 7.

"Even Buddhists are now involved, in Burma and Sri Lanka also. Buddhist monks...destroy Muslim mosques or Muslim families. Really very sad," the Dalai Lama said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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