Pictured is an overcrowded camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Sittwe, Myanmar. Rohingyas are not permitted to travel in Myanmar or to marry or have more than two children without government permission.
Buddhist Rampage in Burma
Mobs Attack Rakhine Muslim Minority in Potential Ethnic-Cleansing Effort
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Last month, some weeks after I visited Myanmar, state security forces and Buddhist vigilantes massacred at least 48 ethnic Rohingya Muslims, mostly women and children, according to human rights reports. Witnesses said the mass killings took place in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar — the country also known as Burma — in one of the many areas that are largely off-limits to journalists and humanitarian workers.
Rakhine is the troubled place where in 2012 Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims and burned thousands of homes. Despite government controls, journalists managed to report that the mobs, assisted by police, had driven more than 100,000 Rohingya into militarized camps. They remain there today, forbidden to marry or to have more than two children without permission or to travel beyond the police and army checkpoints.
Immediately after the massacre, the UN called on Myanmar to investigate. But as with prior atrocities, the government denied responsibility for the killings. According to the Associated Press, on February 27 Myanmar’s government expelled the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders after the organization reported that it had treated two dozen Rohingya Muslims, victims of violence committed by Buddhist mobs. The government denied the attacks.
I never thought the word Buddhist would be used as an adjective to modify the noun terror.
All that changed last summer, when I saw the serene image of a Buddhist monk on the cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine. The story appeared a few months after President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar, which was intended to note the end of 50 years of brutal military rule and the beginning of a “transition to democracy.” In reality, growing sectarian violence in the country may yet derail that transition, as it may slow down the stampede of Western corporations hungry to share in this, the last frontier market in Asia. Next to the portrait of the monk in his flowing, maroon-colored robes was the headline “THE FACE OF BUDDHIST TERROR.”
Buddhists compose about 90 percent of the population in Myanmar; Muslims account for only about 4 percent. The country has some 135 ethnic groups and a long history of tribal and religious conflict. Founded as a democratic nation in 1948, Burma fell to a military coup in 1962, remaining a dictatorship until 2010. At that time, the junta, desperate for hard currency, announced political reforms and allowed elections, which led to a nominally civilian government. The reforms included the freeing of prominent human-rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 years under house arrest in her lakeside home and in the notorious Insein prison. The loosening of military control prompted the lifting of international sanctions, but it was followed by a rash of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
Last fall I flew to Burma, the storied home of thousands of golden pagodas and ancient temples. The country was renamed Myanmar by the junta in 1989, but it is still called Burma by many Western nations. I’d reported from China and Vietnam, but somehow I hadn’t realized that this country was as big as Texas, the largest landmass in mainland Southeast Asia.
I certainly didn’t understand what could be at stake for my own country politically — what forging this new alliance might mean for President Obama, whose legacy will be colored, fairly or unfairly, by failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. I guessed that Obama sorely needed a win in the foreign policy column. And I watched with interest, following the visit, when the President lifted punishing economic sanctions, which had isolated Burma as a police state for decades. Now I wondered how these events would impact the beleaguered Rohingya, the people the UN calls one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Would their sorry tale play a part, however small, in Obama’s legacy?
Or would the Rohingya, these stateless people whose citizenship was revoked when the Burmese generals rewrote the national constitution in 1982, remain a sideshow in a larger picture: the Administration’s attempt to refocus attention from the Middle East toward the China-dominated Pacific, a gambit some have dubbed Obama’s “Asian Pivot”?
Ethnic cleansing has driven tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar in the last two years.
It was a humid 93 degrees the morning I landed in Yangon, the city many still call Rangoon (the military changed the name in 1989). Before my trip, Bill Davis, the lead investigator for Physicians for Human Rights, had told me about a Rohingya businessperson called Karim (not his real name), who had moved to Yangon before travel restrictions were imposed. Davis told me that dozens of Muslims had been massacred and 13,000 displaced by mob violence in Meiktila, a town in the center of the country. The mayhem had apparently been triggered by an argument between a Muslim merchant and a Buddhist customer over gold prices. Much of the town had been burnt by Buddhists, who reportedly set fire to the corpses of their victims as police stood idly by. According to Davis, the crowds shouted “Kill the Kalars!” — a racial epithet commonly used against foreigners, despite the fact that many of the victims were from families who had lived in the area for generations. Davis suggested that his contact might be able to take me to see the rubble of the central mosque and school.
Karim was supposed to meet me at the airport, but the roads were choked with the usual autos, pickups, tuk-tuks, and trishaws. He advised me by phone to take the airport van. An hour later, I walked into the lobby of the Queen’s Park Hotel, a reminder of the British colonial period, which ended after Burma declared independence in 1947.
We met in the hotel restaurant where Karim, a well-dressed man in his mid-thirties, selected a table out of earshot of other customers. The breakfast buffet was winding down, and the waiters were removing platters of Burmese delicacies: mango with dried eel and fish bought fresh on the docks only a few blocks from the hotel. Karim began by apologizing that he could not take me to Meiktila. It was just too dangerous. He was willing to help, but only with background information. “I have three little girls,” he said, his voice trailing off.
I knew Myanmar was experiencing the longest-running civil war in the world, a dubious distinction at best. The Burmese army, one of the largest in the world, was now in its sixth decade of fighting ethnic groups, none of them Muslim, on the China and Thai borders. I knew that Burma’s border territories were rich in oil, gas, and precious gems (90 percent of the world’s rubies and the best jade come from here) and that the Burmese military shared in the riches. There was also credible evidence that government-aligned militias were profiting from drug production in Burma’s Golden Triangle, a principal supplier of heroin to the U.S.
During my visit last fall, China completed an oil and gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal across Burma’s Rakhine state and onward to the Chinese frontier, a distance of more than 1,000 miles. This followed Beijing’s construction of a new railroad from the Chinese border to ports on the Rakhine coast. This was now the fastest way for Chinese products to reach the Indian Ocean. Not to be outdone, a number of American companies had already announced investments in Myanmar, including Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford, which was opening its first franchise dealership in Yangon. But the biggest bonanza could be the anticipated influx of post-junta tourists looking for resorts, and many developers were eying properties on the Bay of Bengal. The value of real estate, Rohingya and otherwise, was going up.
Buddhist mobs have killed hundreds of Muslims in Myanmar in the last two years. These children are in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp near the town of Sittwe.
The Rohingyas are a small ethnic minority with their own culture and language, scattered throughout a half-dozen countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia. The largest concentration — some 1.2 million — are found in Burma, mostly in the Rakhine state, which lies directly south of Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal. This is where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were confined “for their own protection” after the attacks of 2012. Sittwe is virtually inaccessible by road, cut off by an inland mountain range, splitting western Myanmar from the rest of the country.
Rakhine was an independent country until 1784, and, in its glory days, European travelers called the coastal kingdom the “Venice of the East.” Despite the fact that today Rohingyas outnumber Buddhists in some areas, ethnic Rakhines still think of themselves as a separate, monolithic people, something similar to the Basques in Spain.
I flew by prop plane to Sittwe, Karim’s birthplace and the Rakhine capital. It’s an island city of almost 200,000, surrounded by rivers that flow into the bay. Sittwe is the spot where the British landed in 1825 during the first Anglo-Burmese War, and, despite a sizeable Muslim population, it is considered the birthplace of “political Buddhism.”
Here in a British security prison in 1939, the monk Sayadaw U Ottama, a famous leader of the Burmese independence movement and practitioner of Theravāda, the oldest surviving form of Buddhism, died on hunger strike. And here in 2007, Sittwe monks launched the “Saffron Revolution,” an uprising against the military government that quickly spread throughout the country but was brutally repressed.
In 2012, the first large-scale sectarian violence broke out in June, when a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered allegedly by three Muslims, who were quickly lynched. It erupted again in October 2012, when the Muslim quarter, Aung Mingalar, was emptied and much of it burned by rampaging mobs. Between the two outbreaks, more than 240 Rohingya Muslims were killed and an estimated 140,000 were confined to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps near Sittwe. Tens of thousands managed to flee the country.
When I tried to get into Aung Mingalar, I was turned back at a police checkpoint. The next day I hired a fixer who got me into one of the camps not far from the ocean. There I met Noor Ali, a Rohingya man in his mid-thirties who was wearing a torn white T-shirt. Ali took me to a makeshift cemetery and showed me a large mound of fresh dirt. It was a mass grave. The day before, Ali told me through an interpreter that the police had come at night in a big truck. Without explanation, they dumped 58 bodies of men, women, and children. The bodies, which were partially decomposed, may have come from another camp, but no one could identify them. The bodies remain a mystery. The police offered no answers, and everyone was too terrified to press the issue.
Ali led me to an older grave in the cemetery. “My wife is buried here,” he said.
We lingered awhile before walking across an open field, lush green and soft from the rainy season that was now ending. He told me his story in simple language. “We used to all live together,” he said of the Sittwe community. “Then one day the monks told [the Muslims] to leave our village. ‘This is not your land,’” they insisted. When his neighborhood leader, who was Buddhist, decided to join the monks, he knew it was time to go. The Muslim quarter was in a state of high panic. During the chaos, Ali was separated from his wife and their 3-year-old boy. “They had to cross a river,” he said, “but the river was too strong.” Ali was only able to find one body, that of his wife.
I thought of the Royal Sittwe, the seaside resort beyond the police checkpoints where I would spend the night, one of many that developers hope will transform Myanmar into a tourist mecca. Then I thought of Ali and the others in the camp. They were like random beings adrift in a lawless outer space, where the sound of voices cannot travel. Unhooked from the earthship where most of the rest of us ride, they seemed to be floating away, tinier and tinier in the distance.
Noor Ali escaped when Buddhist mobs burned his house as police watched. His wife and 3-year-old boy drowned when they tried to cross a river to safety.
On the Bay of Bengal, about a hundred yards from one of the camps, I found what someone generously called the “Rohingya fishing fleet.” The fleet consisted of some 40 wooden hulls, rotten-looking things without a trace of paint. Above the water line, you could see cracks between the swollen planks; below, you could hear the whoosh of bilge pumps working overtime to keep up with the leaks. The boats listed against one other, like huddled driftwood. It felt like a marine graveyard.
On a muddy embankment near the water, several Rohingyas were struggling to revive a boat — it looked more like a skeleton — about 40 feet in length. One man was busy with a hammer, trying to “sister” an old rib with rusty nails. I remembered from my days on the water that salt dissolves iron all too quickly, one reason why wooden boat operators in the West insist on using bronze and stainless steel to fasten planks.
“Sixty or 70 people crowd into these boats,” my guide told me, noting that the rickety vessels do so without any navigational equipment to guide their ocean voyages. Some flee to nearby Bangladesh, he said, others to Malaysia and Thailand.
Just in the last year, according to human rights groups, thousands of desperate refugees had chosen the dangers of ocean escape from the ethnic cleansing. According to the UN, of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled in 2012, 485 are known to have drowned. Shortly after I left Myanmar last November, 70 men, women, and children drowned when their overloaded boat broke up in the Bay of Bengal.
I had to wonder if the man with the rusty nails was aboard.
Thousands of houses, schools, and mosques have been torched in the recent violence. These are the remains of a mosque near Sittwe.