The Rohingya Muslim group on the Myanmar (Burma) side of the Bangladesh-Myanmar frontier are probably the most deprived people in East Asia; their plight is constantly in the international media, their conditions compelling (see Note below). These 800,000 people are stateless, controlled, and in dire poverty. Many try to escape by boat to neighboring countries.
The Rohingya are an “imagined community”–self-defined as descendants of a half-millennium long influx of Arab and Muslim traders and rulers into the region. The Burman Buddhist majority, however, considers them to be recent “Bengalis” who should be sent back to Bangladesh, which will not accept them. Neither view is completely accurate; the situation is far more complex.
More basic in majority Burman society is a strong, pervasive anti-Muslim prejudice, of which the Rohingya are the most prominent target. Though Muslims only comprise four percent of the population, Burman Buddhist observers often point to the overrepresentation of Muslims among wealthier traders and entrepreneurs, and to the unlimited Indian immigration (mainly Bengalis) allowed into Burma when it was ruled by the British as a province of India. They also complain that Muslim men try to convert Burman Buddhist women and that Muslims they have too many children.
A more basic reason for the Burman fears, which is real no matter how exaggerated it may seem to outsiders, is the perceived fragility and vulnerability of Burman Buddhist culture. This fear is likely a product of the colonial experience. Both the government and private individuals have deplored the impact of British imperialism. But Chinese economic influence, Western pop culture, as well as Islamic culture and religion, are also perceived as destructive of the fragile Buddhist way of life.
The Burman Buddhist majority point, irrelevantly, to the fate of India, the birthplace of Buddhism, where no Buddhists are left because—they believe—of Muslim influence. They feel under cultural siege and will try to take steps to mitigate what they regard as a pending crisis.
If the fragility of Burman culture is an issue, so is the fragility of Buddhist culture in the state of Rakhine (Arakan) where the Rohingya live. Rakhine was an independent country until the Burman conquest of 1785, and the seat of the most renowned Buddhist sculpture (the Mahamuni image) stolen by the Burmans and transported to Mandalay. The Rakhine Buddhists are contemptuous of the Rohingya,Muslims but also feel vulnerable.
The popular Western notion is that Buddhists are quiet, contemplative peoples seeking their own road to enlightenment. True, Buddhism never sponsored “crusades,” but Buddhist monks have been politically active in both Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. Monks were leaders and martyrs of the independence movement in Burma during the British colonial period. In that era, monks led anti-Muslim riots, and today some are virulently anti-Muslim.
When Buddhist monks preach anti-Muslim sentiments, who can publicly disagree? No one.
The dilemma for the reformist Burmese government, which is moving toward pluralism and eventually democracy, is how to control the nationalistic Buddhist monks now that the state has proclaimed an end to censorship and instituted freedom of expression. If violent, large-scale anti-Muslim riots spread to the major cities of Myanmar proper—Mandalay and Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the state’s current progressive movement would be severely threatened.
The Muslim-Buddhist issue not only has dire socio-economic and humanitarian ramifications in Myanmar, it is an unstated political element in the forthcoming and critical national elections of 2015—elections that will likely define the country’s progress toward democracy and development. Support for Buddhism is an essential element of political legitimacy in Myanmar.
To be seen as pro-Muslim is political suicide. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, international democratic icon and leader of the political opposition, does not speak positively about the Muslim issue.
As Myanmar has liberalized, outsiders who had called for the U.S. to overthrow the military dictatorship and install Aung San Suu Kyi have turned their attention to the plight of the Muslims, especially the Rohingya. They castigate Myanmar’s current government and insist on making protection of Muslims a condition for better relations with the West.
The Myanmar government is well aware of the problems and dangers, and yet solutions, even amelioration of the problems, seem, alas, distant. And there is little foreigners can do to help.
NOTE: In 1989, the military government changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar, an old written form. Aung San Suu Kyi and the U.S. did not agree, although the UN and most states adopted Myanmar. The name has become an indicator of political persuasion. The U.S. is slowly shifting its position. The Burman ethnic group comprises some two-thirds of the population and is virtually all Buddhist.
Aye, Sumon and Aung Ye Maung Maung. “Myanmar Arrests Hundreds After Mandalay Violence.” Voice of America, July 7, 2014, News/Asia. http://www.voanews.com/content/myanmar-arrests-hundreds-after-mandalay-violence/1952483.html.
VOA News. “Myanmar Police Break Up Buddhist Mob.” Voice of America, July 2, 2014, News/Asia. http://www.voanews.com/content/myanmar-police-break-up-buddhist-mob/1949083.html.
Reuters. “Myanmar Buddhists Threaten to Kill Muslims.” Voice of America, July 4, 2014, News/Asia. http://www.voanews.com/content/myanmar-buddhists-threaten-to-kill-muslims/1950712.html.
Steinberg, David. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Physicians for Human Rights. “Patterns of Anti-Muslim Violence in Burma: A Call for Accountability and Prevention.” August 2013 .http://s3.amazonaws.com/PHR_Reports/Burma-Violence-Report-August-2013.pdf.
Leider, Jacques P. Le royaume d’Arakan, Birmanie: son histoire politique entre le début du XVe et la fin du XVIIe siècle. Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2004.
Image Credit: Voice of America
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Author, David I. Steinberg, is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University and Visiting Scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. His latest book (with Fan Hongwei) is Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.