RANGOON — Anti-Muslim protestors supported by Buddhist monks gathered in Burma’s main city of Rangoon this week to denounce the United Nations for “bullying” their country into accepting desperate migrants who have been stranded at sea in abandoned boats.
People waving multi-colored Buddhist flags led a column of several hundred marchers as they chanted slogans against the Rohingya minority who, with their distinct language and darker skin, are considered outsiders and denied citizenship in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
It was the latest in a series of Buddhist hate rallies in the country, a phenomenon that has become common here but has yet to penetrate the psyches of many Westerners who associate saffron-robed monks with peace and compassion.
“Yes, we have compassion for all people in our Buddhism, but we have to protect ourselves against our enemies,” said Thuta Nanda, a monk, as people gathered with placards and T-shirts bearing slogans urging the international community to “Stop blaming Myanmar” for the boat crisis.
“In Buddhism, we want to help others,” added protester Htet Htet Soe Oo, “but Muslims are different, their religion teaches that they should kill us.”
If any group of people could benefit from the compassion that many associate with the teachings of the Buddha, it is Burma’s Rohingya Muslims. The group of roughly 1 million is almost completely friendless, widely despised inside predominantly Buddhist Burma and unwanted by neighboring countries.
Thousands of people from the group, along with others from Bangladesh, were left to fend for themselves at sea with limited food and water after Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia began pushing away boats approaching their shores during May.
The countries have since responded to an international outcry and said they will accept up to 7,000 migrants temporarily. But Amnesty International said last week that this “falls short of full compliance with these states’ international legal obligations, which include the establishment and maintenance of search and rescue services.”
On Friday, leaders met in Thailand for a regional summit to discuss the boat crisis. But, as many expected, little was achieved at the meeting as Burma complained of "finger pointing."
The protesters in Rangoon were from a coalition of groups with suggestive names: the National Defense Council, Buddhist Youth, Nationalist Blood, Future Light and the Patriotic Youth Network were all in attendance. They rejected claims that people on board stranded boats were from their country, contradicting reports by aid agencies that Rohingya from Burma make up a large proportion of those involved in the crisis. “There is no such thing in Myanmar as Rohingya!” they chanted.
Nationalists deny that the Rohingya are even a real ethnicity, and prefer to call them “Bengalis” as a way of stressing the belief that the group don’t belong in Burma and are interlopers from Bangladesh. Rohingyas, supported by human-rights advocates, say their families have lived in Burma for generations. As far as many Buddhists are concerned though, the minority is part of an influx of Muslims that has become a national threat.
“If we accept them in our country we can expect more and more problems,” said Win Tun, a 50-year-old trader who watched the marchers pass. “We have enough complaints between Buddhists and Muslims.”
During sporadic outbreaks of violence across the country since 2012, including against Muslims who are not Rohingya, Buddhist mobs with sticks and machetes have slaughtered men, women and children and burned down entire villages.
The violence has been accompanied by a rise in online hate speech. “Fuck U Islam,” one user posted recently beneath an anti-Rohingya cartoon depicting boat people on the Mingalapar Facebook page. “Kill them,” wrote another.
The United Nations estimates that at least 130,000 Rohingya have fled persecution in the country since the 2012 attacks began. Despite that, Burma’s government maintains that the country is not responsible for the exodus of Rohingyas by sea, and has instead blamed criminal traffickers.
“The U.N. lies all the time,” San Di Thwin Mar Oo declared shortly before jumping on a chair to address a crowd with a megaphone at the rally. “They have to stop.”
Last week Burma’s navy brought 208 people to shore before the government declared that 200 were from Bangladesh and announced plans to repatriate them.
For government propagandists, it was an opportunity to show the world that Burma was not the source of the crisis. But a report by Reuters revealed on Wednesday that 100 Rohingyas were removed from the boat before the navy arrived.
Meanwhile nationalists have seized on the rescue, small in comparison to the numbers that have landed elsewhere, as evidence that their country is doing more than its fair share to help. “Myanmar is the kindest country in the world,” said San Di Thwin Mar Oo.
For the Rohingya, that couldn't be farther from the truth; even apparently liberal monks are reluctant to defend them.
Ashin Assiriya, who was a key organizer in a pro-democracy uprising against Burma’s former military junta in 2007, is one of the few monks in Burma who dares to speak out against his fellow clergymen who belong to 969, a radical anti-Muslim group. But defending the Rohingya, specifically, is far more controversial than defending Burma’s other Muslims. “I cannot talk about the citizenship of the Rohingya,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s a problem for the immigration department.”