As mobs wielding torches and machetes rampaged through his neighborhood, Abdul had a strangely candid encounter with one assailant. Recognizing the man as his long-time neighbor—the same man who had once showed great affection towards Abdul’s children—Abdul yelled to his would-be executioner: "‘Why are you doing this?’ He told me, ‘Sorry, I’m fighting for my people.’” Abdul, whose full name is withheld to protect his identity, is a Muslim from the Rohingya ethnic group and his attacker, a Buddhist. Abdul kept him and other members of the mob at bay by throwing his valuables out of his window onto the street. As they were distracted collecting the cash and jewelry, another group of Buddhists from his street approached his house from the rear. They, too, were armed but they had come to escort Abdul and his family out of the besieged neighborhood. “They saved our lives.”
The conflict in western Burma’s Rakhine State erupted last June, when reports spread that a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Rohingya men. Shortly after, a mob of Buddhists exacted retribution by pulling over a bus carrying Muslims and beating 10 passengers to death. The incidents ignited sectarian violence throughout the state. Nearly 200 were killed and many more injured, and some 10,000 homes were destroyed. The vast majority of the estimated 140,000 displaced were Rohingyas, and a year after their violent upheaval they continue to languish in squalid temporary encampments.
In recent months, the violence spread to include attacks on Muslim communities in other parts of the country. In March, provoked by a small dispute in a Muslim-owned gold shop, a Buddhist mob tore through a town in central Burma, killing over 40 people, burning mosques and Muslim homes, and displacing thousands. In May, 1,200 Muslims in the country’s northeast fled from their homes when throngs of armed Buddhists mobilized after unconfirmed reports that a Muslim man killed a Buddhist woman in the area.
The turmoil carries worrying implications for national reconciliation and the sustainability of democratic reforms in Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is in the first stages of transitioning from military to civilian rule. Since independence, in 1948, Burma’s government has been in alternately hot and cold conflicts with myriad ethnic minority groups in the country’s border regions. The xenophobic generals who seized power by coup in 1962 justified their iron-fisted rule as necessary to hold together a fractured country. The junta stepped down in 2011 and Burma’s new semi-civilian government has carried out surprisingly comprehensive reforms: loosening controls on political association, civil society and the press, as well as releasing hundreds of political prisoners. But fresh sectarian violence serves as fodder to the army’s insistence on remaining a backstop to the fragile civilian government and maintaining ultimate authority. It also raises questions about how far democratic reforms will extend to minorities.
Regarded in many quarters as the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia, the Rohingya live in the borderlands between Burma and Bangladesh but are officially a stateless people. There are around a million Rohingya in Burma today. Their exact roots are debated but many likely settled in Burma in the 19th century, having migrated from modern-day Bangladesh into the newly-acquired lands of the British empire. Today, the Rohingya, along with a few other maligned minorities, are excluded from the 135 ethnic groups Burma’s government recognizes as citizens. Many Burmese say the Rohingya should “go back” to Bangladesh, whose government also disavows the Rohingya. Among other consequences of apartheid policies against them, the Rohingya need special permission to travel and marry and face severe discrimination in access to employment, education, and medical care.
Last year’s violence unveiled particularly chilling dimensions of racial and religious hatred toward the Rohingya. When the wife of Mohamed Salam was found dead floating in a river, her body carried a sinister message. She was abducted along with two of her children in June, and Salam was later told by sympathetic Buddhists how they had died. According to them, her captors said her breasts gave milk to Muslim babies and her womb gave birth to future generations of Muslims. Her breasts were then hacked off and her genitalia mutilated with sharpened bamboo. Her teenage son was tethered to a motorbike and dragged across a rocky road. Salam would not elaborate on how his daughter met her end. Today, he cares for his remaining 5-year-old boy in a camp for displaced people outside of Sittwe, the state capital, and the prospect of receiving justice is even more illusory than his chances of returning to his home and job.
Human Rights Watch alleges last year’s bloodshed amounted to ethnic cleansing. In a detailed report released in April, the international rights monitor said state security forces did more to facilitate than to prevent abuses against the Rohingya, and sometimes even directly participated in atrocities. The group profiled one particularly brutal episode, last October, in which 70 Rohingyas, including 28 children, were left easy prey for a Buddhist mob to butcher after local riot police disarmed the Rohingya of rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves. The report said local Buddhist politicians and monks publicly demonized the Rohingya—describing them as a threat to Burmese society and encouraging their removal from the state—“in full view” of authorities, “who raised no concerns.” Burmese rights groups have criticized Human Rights Watch’s assessment as one-sided, and instead described the violence as “communal.”
Such labels aside, what may be most foreboding are the dim prospects for a normalization (in relative terms) of life for Rohingyas in Burma. Time has not softened the vitriol many Buddhists in Rakhine State feel towards the group. “We cannot go back to living together,” says Hla Moe Thu, a 58-year-old Buddhist woman living in a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Sittwe. “They should go to Bangladesh, where they came from, or they should be killed,” she adds, as her grandchild sits beside her. According to Ashin Ariya, the head monk of Shwezedi Monastery in Sittwe, Rohingyas have wicked designs: to rape Buddhist women, colonize Buddhist land, and convert non-Muslims to Islam. “The Muslims like to kill people and rape women, and they want to take over the whole area and make everyone Muslim,” he says matter-of-factly.
Paradoxically, democratic reforms have fed the jingoistic chorus. Over the past year, Burma’s new government has dialed back the heavy press and Internet censorship of the previous military regime, allowing journalists greater independence and web users nearly limitless access to sites. But freedom of speech has unleashed pent-up prejudices. Online forums contain rafts of posts referring to the Rohingya in expletive-filled terms, and Burmese newspapers have shown the Rohingya no quarter. Eleven, one of Burma’s largest-circulation newspapers, has focused its coverage of Rakhine State on slamming the Rohingya. Ho Than Hlaing, their correspondent in Sittwe, says the “Bengalis” living in relief camps are quarrelsome freeloaders who receive better care than displaced Buddhists—in fact, conditions in camps for the much smaller number of displaced Buddhists are markedly better than those in Rohingya camps, some of which are blocked by authorities from receiving international aid.
The rhetoric has carried over into daily life. A recently launched campaign urges Burmese to only patronize shops that display “969” signs—a code referring to Buddhist teaching—in their storefronts. The group of zealous monks spearheading the movement allege it is intended to promote Buddhist pride, but its true aim seems to be to marginalize Muslims.
Aung Naing Oo, a member of the Myanmar Peace Center, a governmental group that advises on ethnic disputes, likens the dangerous nationalism in Burma today to the escalation of ethnic tensions in former Yugoslavia after the fall of the Soviet Union: no longer fettered by the strictures of a military state, people are freer to act on long-suppressed prejudices. But even within this scheme, animosity toward the Rohingya is singularly severe. Indeed, they are viewed both as carpet-bagging intruders and low-caste detritus. “Indians”—including various peoples from the subcontinent and those with South Asian features— are resented in Burma because many arrived following the British takeover and soon emerged as a dominant group in urban commerce. Rohingyas are viewed with particular suspicion and scorn for their religion and distinctly dark skin. And, to top it off, they are seen to epitomize the existential threat posed by neighboring Bangladesh, whose large and poor population the Burmese feel is perpetually on the cusp of spilling over en masse into Burma.
The turmoil in Rakhine State is further complicated by hostilities between the local Buddhist population, from the Arakanese ethnic group, and the Burman majority and central government they dominate. The Arakanese were the ancestors of a small kingdom that used to control what is modern-day Rakhine State and, like many ethnic groups in Burma, they desire autonomy. Beyond ethnic pride, the Arakanese resent that Rakhine is Burma’s second-poorest state despite its natural riches – the area’s timber, oil, gas and precious metals have for decades been pillaged by the military and their cronies. “Our people want a real federal state with self-determination and our share of profits from natural resources,” says Than Thun, a community leader in Sittwe. But Arakanese autonomists like Than Thun have, for the time being, found common cause with the central government in directing their ire towards the Rohingya, who are easy scapegoats.
Few figures inside Burma have spoken out against the anti-Rohingya sloganeering. Most conspicuous has been the near silence of the country’s iconic human rights and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. After 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi is now a parliamentarian and has political calculations to consider. Observers believe she sees support for the Rohingya as going treacherously against the tide of popular opinion. The new president, Thein Sein, has said he will crackdown on “political opportunists and religious extremists,” but his intentions and ability to control eruptions of violence remain unclear. Thein Sein is a former high-ranking general who has surprised many in and outside the country with his moderation but that may not extend to his feelings toward the Rohingya. And observers note the upper echelons of his government remain stocked with former military figures who delight in the potential for sectarian violence to steer power back toward the army.
In the meantime, Rohingya in and outside the camps are in greater numbers turning to the sea to escape their dire prospects. Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, an NGO that tracks rights abuses in Rakhine State, estimates that nearly 28,000 Rohingya attempted to flee through the Bay of Bengal during the recent dry season, three times the normal rate. The journey is perilous: hundreds die every year from starvation, dehydration, and drowning aboard barges that are ill-equipped for ocean travel and steered by mercenary crews.
In Boomay—a Rohingya quarter just outside of Sittwe that is hemmed in by a series of army checkpoints—a group of men in a shanty teashop are watching an ancient television tuned to a news channel with footage of Rohingya on barges intercepted by the Bangladeshi navy. The program shows Rohingya kneeling under tarps on the deck of a boat as waves come crashing against the bow. The teashop’s owner pays little attention to scenes of horror—she has already determined her daughter will attempt a similar voyage to join her husband in Malaysia, where he is working illegally but earning steady wages. “If we could stay here in peace and have some freedom, then it would be better to stay here and not take this risk,” says the daughter, who is in her early 20s and plans to take her 5-year-old child along. “But we don’t know if that will ever be the case.”