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Burmese Buddhists turn on Muslim minority

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Tom Farrell

Buddhist extremists are stirring up hatred of Rohingya and other Muslims in a display of racism that is part of a political agenda

Just beyond the administrative buildings in Sittwe, capital of the state of Rakhine (Arakan) in northwestern Burma, a checkpoint halts all unauthorised travel into the town’s last Muslim quarter. The police sit around looking listless in the tropical heat. A few hundred metres beyond is Aung Mingalar, into which about 7,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims were confined following last year’s violence.

In June and October last year, vicious clashes between Muslims and Buddhists convulsed Rakhine. Buddhists, who form the majority, targeted the Rohingya, a much despised minority. They were divested of their citizenship in 1982 and have so far seen few benefits during the rapid liberalisation after March 2011 when a decades-old junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government. But sporadic violence has continued into this year and spread into other regions of Burma. The targets now include non-Rohingya Muslims who collectively make up about 5 per cent of Burma’s 60 million population.

A somewhat surreal situation ensues when a local Rohingya activist and translator named Aung Win (57) approaches the checkpoint. Although he cannot proceed up the road, he is able to talk over his mobile phone from a few dozen metres away.

“If anyone wants to go out of here, they have to pay 15,000 kyat (€12) for one trip. Up and down, they charge 30,000 kyat and only for a two-hour journey,” he says, adding that access to medical care is severely restricted.

It started in June last year, he says. “Strangers from outside of Sittwe and then the Rakhine extremists arrived and attacked the Rohingya villages. In total more than 13 villages were hit and they killed more than 100 people.”


Run-down mosque
Win’s home was located behind Sittwe’s Nobel Hotel on the town’s main road. On the far side, near the Rakhine State Museum, the Jama Mosque, built in 1859, should have pride of place as a local landmark. But its grounds are overgrown by tropical trees and creepers. The main entrance is blocked by a line of Rakhine-owned stalls made of wood and corrugated iron, selling soft drinks and snacks.

A side entrance is blocked by a pair of rifle-toting policemen. Further down the street, a billboard advertises this year’s Southeast Asian Games, hosted by Burma.

It has long been a pariah state, subject to sanctions and notorious for annulling the results of a popular vote in 1990. The nation’s re-emergence is underscored by President Thein Sein’s success in securing Burma’s role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year.

What has been tentatively termed a “Burma Spring” is proceeding at speed. In 2011, the 68-year-old Sein became the country’s first non-interim civilian president in 49 years.

Later that year, he had a high-profile meeting with the iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), was allowed to contest byelections last April and she now sits as an MP and is chair of the Committee for the Rule of the Law and Tranquillity.
Source link: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/asia-pacific/burmese-buddhists-turn-on-muslim-minority-1.1497966

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