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.

Kevin McKiernan

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
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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.

Click to enlarge photo

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”?

Kevin McKiernan

Ethnic cleansing has driven tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar in the last two years.

Myanmar Stories

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.

Kevin McKiernan

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.

“They drowned.”

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.

Kevin McKiernan

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.

Fleeing Ethnic Cleansing by Sea

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.

More than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been displaced by ethnic cleansing by majority Buddhists, who make up about 90 percent of the country.
Click to enlarge photo

Kevin McKiernan

More than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been displaced by ethnic cleansing by majority Buddhists, who make up about 90 percent of the country.

“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.

Kevin McKiernan

Thousands of houses, schools, and mosques have been torched in the recent violence. These are the remains of a mosque near Sittwe.

A Burnt Mosque

I followed Aung Win, my balding 60-year-old fixer, through the ashes of the torched mosque near Sittwe and into an adjoining space that used to be a madrassa. Aung Win said that some 350 people had come there every day to pray. We passed through the eerie remains of a classroom, walls still standing, a floor of blackened rubble, then on to the remnants of a kitchen, where student lunches once had been prepared. Plate and teacup fragments cracked underfoot.

“The Buddhists set everything on fire on June 12 and then again on June 13 and 14,” he said. “Then the police attacked the people who were trying to run away.”

We walked to another room, with only walls standing. For a moment we were alone, out of sight of the nearby guards. “During the violence, I lost two of my brothers-in-law,” Aung Win said quietly. “One of them was killed by beating and the other,” he said, dragging a finger across his neck, “his throat was cut with a long knife.”

“I am very sad,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “I do not think still there is justice in Myanmar.”

Kevin McKiernan

In 2003, Ashin Wirathu, the radical Burmese monk, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for inciting mobs to kill Muslims. He was freed in 2010 in a general amnesty.


Buddhism and nationalism have been intertwined in Burma for more than a century. It is a good guess that George Orwell, the writer who first came to Burma as a British police officer in the 1920s, witnessed monks taking part in demonstrations against the occupation. And here, almost a century later, was Ashin Wirathu, the radical Burmese monk, notorious leader of the “969” political movement, the anti-Muslim crusade widely condemned for spreading hate speech. In 2003, Wirathu was sentenced to 25 years in prison for inciting riots that led to the killing of 10 Muslims but was released in 2010 in a general amnesty for political prisoners. Considering his volatile history, I was surprised to meet a charismatic, cherubic-looking preacher, a boyish 45-year-old who stood only about 5‘7”, with a voice so soft it was difficult to hear.

The 969 movement considers Rohingyas to be land- and job-grabbing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are like “Mexican sneakers in your country,” someone told me, rephrasing a common slur. Wirathu joined 969 ​— ​the number supposedly refers to Buddhist scripture ​— ​in 2001. The movement’s logo, a circle of light emanating from three lions on a pedestal, can be seen throughout Burma on vendor stalls, taxicabs, and private vehicles. Wirathu has thousands of Facebook followers, and his YouTube videos calling Muslims “dogs” and “carp” and other names are all over the Internet.

I met him at the respected Masoeyein Monastery in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar, where he presides over some 2,500 monks. Wirathu painted a picture of Buddhist monks cowering under physical threat from a worldwide Muslim conspiracy. “Their purpose is to turn Myanmar into an Islamic state,” he claimed. While most Rohingya are not connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, he said, the majority are bound by their influence.

The author found himself the center of attention when Ashin Wirathu, the radical Burmese preacher, 
assigned three young monks to shoot photos and video of him.
Click to enlarge photo

Kevin McKiernan

The author found himself the center of attention when Ashin Wirathu, the radical Burmese preacher, assigned three young monks to shoot photos and video of him.

Outside Wirathu’s temple were two large bulletin boards, where gruesome photos of the corpses of mutilated monks were posted. An idyllic drawing of Wirathu, encircled by the doves of peace, was positioned above the corpses. Wirathu told me the monks were bludgeoned or hacked to death by Muslim attackers. I asked him where the pictures were taken. He said Thailand and Bangladesh, both of which have small Rohingya populations. He later claimed similar photos on the other board were taken in the Rakhine state in Burma, though there was no context for the photos and no authentication. It seemed preposterous to believe that the murders of so many monks could have taken place in a society where the majority population is Buddhist ​— ​a place where monks are held in such reverence that they routinely jump queues at supermarkets and airport counters. How could all these crimes be committed in such a country without being reported in the news?

Most ethnic Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 when Burma’s military junta rewrote the national constitution.
Click to enlarge photo

Kevin McKiernan

Most ethnic Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 when Burma’s military junta rewrote the national constitution.

Andrea Gittleman, the senior legislative counsel for the Physicians for Human Rights in Washington, D.C., said her organization has seen a connection between speeches by Wirathu and spikes in anti-Muslim violence across Myanmar. Gittleman cited the example of Wirathu leading a rally of monks in Mandalay in September 2012 to promote the current president Thein Sein’s controversial plan to send Rohingya Muslims to a third country. A month later, more violence broke out in the Rakhine state.

(note: According to Burmese media accounts, the January 2014 massacre in Rakhine erupted soon after monks delivered sermons calling for the expulsion of all the Rohingya.)

In last year’s controversial Time interview, Wirathu took the title “Burmese Bin Laden.” After the exposé, more than a thousand monks and other Burmese attended a protest rally and Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut banned the magazine, saying it was necessary to halt the spread of “hate speech.” Wirathu was quoted in the article saying Muslims were the main cause of violence in the world, and urging his compatriots to be vigilant: “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog.”

This temporary mosque was built in a refugee camp near Sittwe, Myanmar, after Buddhist mobs burned down the Muslim quarter.
Click to enlarge photo

Kevin McKiernan

This temporary mosque was built in a refugee camp near Sittwe, Myanmar, after Buddhist mobs burned down the Muslim quarter.

Late in the afternoon of our interview, standing in a sweat-drenched shirt next to the photos of mutilated corpses, I listened as Wirathu began to profess his admiration for historical figures such as Corazón Aquino in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and Mahatma Gandhi in India. “I have a great deal of respect,” Wirathu said, “for a leader like Martin Luther King who has shown us the way for peaceful resistance. There are a few people in Myanmar who follow his example, and I identify with them.”

It all had a weird, Alice in Wonderland feeling. Here I was, an American visitor, now steeped in human rights reports about Buddhist atrocities against Muslims, talking to an angelic little man who claimed that the Rohingyas were behind most, if not all, of the carnage. Why have all these Rohingyas been killed and why were there 140,000 refugees in those camps? I asked incredulously. It’s propaganda, Wirathu replied politely.

Kevin McKiernan

Armarni Sein Hlaing is part of a group that tries to promote peace between Buddhists and Muslims. She says the military wants to use sectarian discord in Burma to retain power. Behind Armarni is a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s famous dissident and Nobel laureate. Suu Kyi, who is revered in Washington, D.C., for human rights advocacy, has remained silent about the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myanmar.

The Buddhist Peacemaker

The first thing that grabs your attention in her tidy middle class house in Mandalay is the large photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s famous dissident and Nobel laureate. The home belongs to Armarni Sein Hlaing, a peace activist who, as a student in the ’80s and ’90s, was briefly detained in demonstrations against the military junta and once “spent a month hiding in the jungle” after her college friends were arrested. She told me that in order for Suu Kyi to run for the presidency in 2015 ​— ​a development that might convince many skeptics that Myanmar was on a real path to democracy ​— ​the military would have to agree to amend the constitution, which states that a candidate’s family must have been born in Burma. Suu Kyi’s husband and children were born in England.

Such a change, Armarni guessed, was unlikely.

Kyaw Min (second from right), former member of the Myanmar Parliament, spent seven years in prison, 
along with his wife and three children, for speaking out for Rohingya.
Click to enlarge photo

Kevin McKiernan

Kyaw Min (second from right), former member of the Myanmar Parliament, spent seven years in prison, along with his wife and three children, for speaking out for Rohingya.

Today, Armarni and her husband are members of the once-outlawed National League for Democracy, which was represented in the historic election of 2012 when Suu Kyi was elected a member of Parliament. Like Suu Kyi, Armarni and her husband, who is a maritime engineer, are Theravāda Buddhists. They are part of a group called Myitta, which tries to promote harmony between Buddhists and Muslims. Myitta means “empathy” in Burmese.

Armarni said she welcomed the democratic reforms, especially the new press freedoms, but she said the violence against Muslims was orchestrated, “a deliberate attempt by the government to sway the outcome” of the coming elections. The Myitta movement was raising issues I hadn’t heard before, which seemed a hopeful sign. “It is the government that is trying to divert attention to distract us from the real issues at hand,” she said. “There is no reason for the Buddhists and the Muslims to fight ​— ​we were all born here and are like brothers and sisters,” she added. But “someone is pulling the strings ​— ​there is a puppet master.”

Kevin McKiernan

Author Kevin McKiernan poses with a little girl wearing thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from ground bark popular in Myanmar.


On my last day in Myanmar, five bombs exploded in Yangon. In one of the blasts, a 43-year-old American tourist in the Traders Hotel suffered multiple injuries. The government blamed Karen guerrillas, one of an alphabet soup of rebel groups in the resource-rich north, which have been fighting the Burmese army for almost 60 years.

A Yangon newspaper, perhaps testing the limits of the new press freedoms, blamed the Burmese secret police, claiming government efforts to instill fear in the long run-up to the 2015 elections. Given the conspiracy theories swirling in the country, that guess was as good as any.

This was the end of the Buddhist Lent, the religious holiday known as Thadingyut that falls each year when the rains begin to retreat. This year Thadingyut overlapped with Eid al-Adha, the worldwide Islamic feast that honors the sacrifice attributed to the patriarch Abraham. I got a taste of both, first by walking in the annual festival of lights that celebrates Thadingyut. Then Karim picked me up and brought me to the Muslim quarter, where lines of poor people had queued up to receive the traditional donations of lamb.

After that we went to the family home of Kyaw Min, a well-known Rohingya politician who had been elected as a member of the Myanmar Parliament in 1990. In 2006 Kyaw was arrested by the secret police on charges his Rohingya advocacy was giving Myanmar a “bad name” abroad. Then the police rounded up the rest of the family, Kyaw’s wife and their three children. The youngest, Wai Wai (who was 18 at the time), told me the notorious Special Branch police came to their house at midnight. After two months in jail without benefit of counsel, Wai Wai said she and her mother and siblings were sentenced to 17 years in prison. Her father, the real target, was sentenced to 46 years. All of them were incarcerated at Insein, the notorious prison built by the British in 1871. The prison ​— ​which, at the time of its construction, was the largest in the Empire ​— ​was intended to house 5,000 inmates. Under Myanmar military government, Kyaw said, the population had swollen to 10,000.

Only a few months before my visit, Kyaw and his family were released from prison. Considering their seven-year ordeal behind bars, they struck me as remarkably cheerful.

Kyaw was back at work printing broadsides. His daughter Wai Wai, a bright young woman of 25, had polished her English while in prison and was now virtually fluent. She was taking civics classes at the U.S. Embassy, which had given her and a peace delegation she belonged to coveted visas to visit the U.S. Encouraged by the Americans, she and her delegation had just returned from a trip to New York and Washington, D.C. It was a small but hopeful sign.

. . .

Flying home on China Airlines, watching The Lone Ranger with subtitles in Mandarin and eating a kosher meal that had been packaged in Belgium, I had to marvel how the world had shrunk ​— ​and how Burma had remained so frozen in time.

A few weeks after I returned to Santa Barbara, the United Nations passed a resolution urging Myanmar to grant citizenship to the disenfranchised Rohingya. Myanmar quickly told the UN to mind its own business (which, some might say, it was trying to do). After that, the U.S. Congress introduced a nonbinding resolution calling on “Burma to end the persecution and discrimination of the Rohingya people and ensure respect for internationally recognized human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups.” The resolution, which Tom Andrews, former U.S. congressmember from Maine, helped draft, is largely symbolic. It is aimed in part at those in the Obama administration who are pushing behind the scenes for the U.S. to lift the last big sanction, military aid to Burma, which was cut after the bloody crackdown on protesters 25 years ago. “It’s wrong to be talking about weapons,” Andrews told me. “The big question should be whether the Myanmar military is answerable to the government or, as it appears, the government is still answerable to the military.” The overall issue is being driven, the ex-congressmember said, by the U.S. and China vying for power in Burma. “That’s why I fear [U.S. military aid] will eventually pass.”

I asked Andrews why Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of human rights in Myanmar who is so revered in Washington, D.C., had remained silent in the face of the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. “Muslims are the third rail of politics,” he said bluntly.

“No politician in Burma can make a stand for a reviled minority and still be elected.”

Kevin McKiernan is a journalist and filmmaker. He directed the PBS documentary Good Kurds, Bad Kurds and is the author of the book The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Human race is a gang of morons and thugs and a few enlightened. These saffron-robed jackasses are the former, and are giving their ‘Life is a Tender Illusion’ brand a bad name.

jwing (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 8:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Religion and over-population are a dangerous mix.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 11:05 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Great reporting about events and persecuted people under the radar of our ratings addicted media networks. However, far too much theorizing about the politics of it all, when even worlds polititans need facts and info! Me things the authors focus should be on making proper politicians and world humanitarian agencies aware aware!

ppetrich39 (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 11:37 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Killing people is so uncivilized, they should be civilized like us and put people in prison for drugs or non-violent offenses. I tell you, not only do you get to take control of people, but you get to make money from it.

AZ2SB (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 6:23 p.m. (Suggest removal)

There were no massacare or in other words not a single Rhohinja Muslim actually they are illegeal migrant Bengalis was not murdered in Rakhine(Myanmer) between 1st Feb. and 6th March. News of massarcare are false and rootless News.

TinOo (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 6:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

A typical liberal media idiot. Please don't label this journalism. I have been visiting Myanmar for 5 years, and living here for over two years. A fly-in reporter looking for media attention offers absolutely no proof of anything, just opinion this and "he said" that. The majority of the Buddhist people here in Myanmar (and I am not Buddhist) are caring, respectful people. The porous border with Bangladesh makes the Rohingya problem very similar to the illegal alien problem in the US. Non-documented peoples clamoring for their "rights". Are there abuses, yes, just like the US, but California's approach is not working there, don't try to export it elsewhere. Meanwhile, fly-in somewhere else... you are giving the rest of us Americans here a bad name.

YangonBill (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 9:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Religion and over-population are a dangerous mix.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
March 6, 2014 at 11:05 a.m.

George, this video, less than three minutes in length, addresses your point.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
March 7, 2014 at 3:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

In Myanmar (Burma) , majority of people are burmese ethnic and buddhists. These buddhists people committed inhumane attacks on muslims and christians. In northern part of Myanmar (Burma) , 969 terrorist buddhist gang led by a buddhist monk called Thidagu fired many churches and properties of christians.Moreover, in northern part of Myanmar (Burma) , this 969 buddhist gang led by Wirathu buddhist monk destroyed a lot of mosques and houses of muslim people.About 20000 to 30000 of christian and muslim people were killed by buddhist people. Myanmar ( Burma ) government and its authority is also buddhist and they also defense these radical buddhists.

Rowanandrea (anonymous profile)
March 7, 2014 at 11:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dear Kevin McKeirnan, let me comment something concerning with your article. Yes, I am a Buddhist from Myanmar. First of all I have to respect your points of view.; how sympathy on minority . You described Rohingya as minority. Yes it is right comparing of the whole Myanmar. Every Myanmar ethnic group (135 ethnic groups) is minority comparing with the whole Burma . So are the people you mentioned.To make clear, Rohingya is not ethnic group of Myanmar. One thing, that so called minority group in that area, there is 95% and the rest is Buddhist.
During the conflict inside Rakhine State in 2012, not only the Muslims got killed and homeless but also the Buddhists.Not only the mosques were burnt but also the Buddhist temples were burnt by so called Rohingya.95 % Bengali ( I don't wanna use the word " muslim" to represent Rohingya Because I respect other Muslims living in Myanmar peacefully) drove away 5 % Buddhists by burning their homes. Even a Buddhist teacher was killed by his own Bengali ( so called Rohingya) pupils. The Buddhist had to hide in the bushes of the mountains silently without minding out of wild animals in the heavily raining dark night, the whole night!they had to run and run by pushing the bushes full of thorn. They dare not use flash lights .The children , the women and the elders were very frightened from death. The people left in the village were murdered.
You wrote that 48 Muslims were killed by Buddhists last January 2014. Some witnesses told that they saw the place the dead bodies were buried. When investigating members including some Muslim leaders went that place to dig out, even no bone was seen. And a Muslim woman told the investing team that her husband died just in front of her eyes by getting stabbed womb . It is shocked news, isn't it? Nevertheless , her husband was seen alive by investigating team.
About " by mob violence in Meiktila" , before that conflict a Buddhist monk was burnt alive by dragging into a mosque by some Muslims. The monk was just a guest of the town.
What I would like to say is that if there is a conflict, both sides have their damage physically or/ and mentally. I wish the proper news must be based on the views from both sides. On the contrary, the medias are only describing against Buddhists. It would be so nice if you tried to get some photos of burnt , destroyed Buddhist temples. If you would like to get some sad photos and video from buddhists, I would be so happy to help you.

Aye1983 (anonymous profile)
March 7, 2014 at 2:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I don't believe any of the posts here denying or minimizing the ethnic violence in Burma/Myanmar.

Here's what the UN and BBC have to say:

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
March 7, 2014 at 8:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I really shout Boo against those who did commit bad things to people Muslims or Buddhists or any religion. There were causalities during conflicts in Myanmar which rooted from mistrust as well as lack of rule of law. I never support 969 movement nor I like U Wirathu. I think every citizen must have right and must be secured by law and order of the country.
However , What do you mean by ethnic cleansing?

I don't think there wasn't any thing like systematic killing or removal of any group in Myanmar. (There was ethic cleansing in 1947 which took place in Buthee Taung , Maung Daw region as the result of which the ethnic groups of Burma , rathine , Thet ,Myo , Khamee people had to migrate inland since their lives were at risk. Over 57 Rakhine villages were destroyed by so called Rohingyas people.

All the recent conflicts

2012 conflict in Maungdaw started when a Rakhine gal was raped and brutally murdered by 3 so called Rohingya guys

Meik hti la conflicts was originated when a Buddhist monk was drawn and burnt dead in a mosque, All these things should be ( must be) solved by law. A lack of rule of law and no transparent new led people to mistrust each other.


The term Rohingyas have been invented in 1940 ish. No wonder there isn't such term found in the British( well known for systematic ) census data from its colony Burma. I insist those who are entitle citizenship law should get citizenship. But claiming Ethnicity is ridiculous. It is not because they are Muslims but because they are simply not ethnic.

Non Transparent Government Vs Biased media

All in all , I really want to challenge the writer regarding bias. :) Have you met Rakhine minority from those areas. Every report (BBC , AZR or whatever media ) who only did listen one sided stories is biased. I really understand every media has hidden agenda according to share holder.
Military Junta and Quasi civilian government is never transparent and do not have capacity to broadcast up to date . No wonder biased journalists like you can spread propaganda.
I really empathize those who became baits in moulding to seem like religious conflicts.

But World should never forget

Monks were killed and shot in 2007 Saffron revolution.
U Wirathu does not represent majority of Myanmar for example U Winthotedi a monk from Meikhtila who saved and fed 800 Muslims in his monastery during conflicts , U Sandar Dika donated for Muslims people in Meikhtila. And Sitagu sayadaw.

May (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 12:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Burma Buddhists are very radical and aggressive.They don't know how to pay respect to other people.When I visited Burma , buddhist monks are like dictators and do not pay attention to other people.Burma buddhist monks need to learn about respect , tolerance and human relationship.

Anetrenho (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 2:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Ha Ha.. This is very funny. Kevin, see this video taken by locals which was edited by the lousy director of AP, Chris Lewa.
You referred this funny article made by Chris Lewa, Director of AP Why don't you ask her where she source for this news? Like you, Reuter also referred AP and released this news but numbers increased to 60s. Ha ha, what a funny! On his facebook, local counterpart of AP apologized for this fake news make by AP.
You should know who she is. She is making money with those Bengladeshi. See below FYI and you will understand how she got benefit from this area. Ignore if you are the same group with her.
We don't care either you abused or assault Buddhist in this way. It is up to you.

Tint (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 4:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Author Kevin McKiernan, you should have done your job better. You need to do thorough research. You are lack of professionalism. Your article is full of misleading and bias, and errors. When you said, "240 ... Muslims killed" since 2012, it is not completely true. One third of people being killed in communal violence are Buddhist and non-Muslim people.

Then you said that three Muslims gangsters, who raped and killed a Rakhine young lady, "were quickly lynched." It is totally wrong. They were arrested and the ringleader committed a suicide in detention. You didn't mention June 8 Muslims riots which ignited series of grievances in Myanmar. Muslims of Chittagong are so used to do this kind of violence. You can see this here.

When you use the term "political Buddhism," you probably have that "name calling" in mind. A Buddhist monk will adhere to principles of Buddhism up to his commitment. At the same time, he could be able to strive for his own people with good intentions. It does not mean he has any political ambitions or he is promoting any ideology. Buddhism and political ideology do not ever cross the line each other.

You would easily believe Muslims people's oral accounts of their claims. But you turn a blind eye to Buddhist victims in Myanmar, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Southern Thailand. I don't understand people who claim themselves they are for human rights and they actually pick one side of which human to get rights against others.

MMTruth (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 6:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Attention all Fox News believer's, Muslims aren't the only ones who commit atrocities.

AZ2SB (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

AZ2SB: Fox News IS a journalistic atrocity.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
March 8, 2014 at 5:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Unsurprisingly, not only you but also who has not ever lived in Rakhine State, will say and think like this. Most people around the world will feel sympathy this Bangli (so called Rohingya). We of course, Buddhist are full of kindness for this races. But they (although lived half a century ago) think themselves Pakistanis not Burmese. They still hold Pakistani flag and sing Pakistani songs. They can't even speak Burmese language and use Bangli. Like Mexicans in America, can you please answer why US can't accept all Mexican Immigrants as their citizenship? You may have complete answer, right!, so don't judge Burmese Buddhist as you only visited shot time, saw and asked what you wanted to.

kyawkyi (anonymous profile)
March 9, 2014 at 8:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Wow! I can’t believe a prestigious international news media like Independent would include such misleading article. First of all, the news of 48 Bengali alleged massacre was fabricated by the Bengali in Du Chee Yar Tan village in order to cover up their murdering of a Burmese local police. After the murder case, a violent clash broke out between the Bengali and the Buddhists, and both sides were harmed. There was no causality. Burmese Government condemned the international presses for using false news source and the British Embassy has already clarified the misreporting of the news. International NGOs inside Rakhine shouldn't be biased in treating the locals and reporting the news in order to gain the trust from the locals. And this article is way too biased. The author only visited Bengali refugee camps and recounted what he saw in an emotional tone. He didn’t visit the refugee camp from the Buddhist side.
During the sectarian conflict, both sides got harmed and there are causalities on both sides. Bengalis also commit violent acts and cause causalities during the conflict. There is always two sides of the story. Moreover, the author wrote as if all Buddhists harbor hatred towards Bengali and all Muslims inside Burma. We have a silent majority inside Burma who want peace and tranquality. Buddhism preaches empathy and compassion and this monk here, unlike lunatic Wirathu who preaches hatred, saved more than 800 muslims during Maithitla conflict. He is the living proof that not all Buddhists are “brutal.” He was awarded as the person of the year by 7 day news media. Myanmar is still going through democratic transition and there are a lot of ex-militant politicians and their puppet religious figures like Wirathu who are trying to squeeze every political benefits out of this Rohingya problem and turn it into a religious conflict. The international pressure on this issue will only make things worse. I wonder how other countries (Malaysia and Thailand) facing the same issue with Rohingya tackle the problem if there were going through the same democratic transition process like Myanmar.This issue should only be tackled by the existing immigration laws of Myanmar. On the other hand, the illogical hatred towards Burmese musilms should be stopped inside the country as well. Those Bengali immigrants problem, fueled by some racists monks, has stirred the confusion of nationality and religion among some politically ignorant and naive citizens. I don't hate Bengalis either but the international media should also portray the suffering of Buddhists Rakhine by the violent acts of Bengalis as well.

TrlpFullmoon (anonymous profile)
March 10, 2014 at 10:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

(This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of use policy.)

Thomaszaw (anonymous profile)
March 13, 2014 at 2:42 a.m.

Kevin, it is shameful that you wrote a cock and bull story just for money.

All are fabricated.

You are now already rich for this single article.

But you must understand that you are already islamized.

You have now a lot of money for writing this article.

But you are a worthless fellow.

Thomaszaw (anonymous profile)
March 13, 2014 at 2:56 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Kevin see this video, how they prepare to invade the land of Buddhists.

Tint (anonymous profile)
March 15, 2014 at 11:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

A scorching article searingly focused on one of the most divisive issues in an otherwise peaceful country still in the early stages of opening up to the outside world. The Burmese do not call it Myanmar, by the way.

It sounds like the author only visited volatile hotspots and yes, there is definite animosity between the Wirathu-led buddhists and the Rohingyas. They are a dangerous buddhist sect who in no way represent the greater community.

There is no true picture of Burma as a whole here. Just a tiny sliver of a country written by someone quickly passing through. I've visited twice – two and 12 years ago – and found to be one of the most sublime places on earth. And yes, I visited Sittwe but I also got to a lot of different regions where for tourists and locals alike, it's a brave new world. I hope it can withstand the tourist crush and keep its soul intact.

mingalaba (anonymous profile)
March 20, 2014 at 7:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It is interesting to see how many Buddhist Burmese engage in whitewashes and denials about the massacre of Rohingyas. They take advantage of the fact that most people know next to nothing about the history of Burma and it ethnic conflicts. Probably some discussion of this would have been useful in Mr McKiernan's otherwise extremely useful and interesting article - to help counter all the nationalistic Burma Buddhist disinformation.

Firstly, these Burma Buddhist nationalists would like us to believe that a 5% minority is going around murdering Buddhists who are 95% majority (which the Burma Buddhists themselves admit). Would any person with common sense credit such an idea? Is there any nation on Earth actually trying to commit collective suicide by provoking attacks from an overwhelming majority? Excuse me if I express scepticism.

Secondly, the common racial prejudice slur against Rohingyas is that they are Bengalis from Bangladesh. Actually, they speak a language close to the Chittagong language of Bangladesh and perhaps their ancestors came hundreds of years ago from what later became Bangladesh. What of it? Is that a reason to oppress them? Should India wipe out the Assamese because they speak a modern descendant of Ahom which is a Tai language (akin to Burmese) and are of Tai ancestral ethnicity? I don't suppose the Burmese would agree with this - or perhaps they wouldn't care because the Burmese imperialists conquered the Ahom independent kingdom in the 18th C in the Burmese imperialist expansion throughout the area ....

These Burmese commentators take advantage of the fact that most people haven't looked into the Burmese expansion and conquests of the 18th - 19th C. The Shan, Kachin, Karen, Manipuri (now in India) and other minority LaoTai speaking peoples all over this area were conquered by the Burmese who were expanding north and west along the Irrawaddy and were defeated by the British expanding east and Burma was taken over. This relatively recent imperialism is fresh in the collective mindset of the Burmese which is why Burmese monks have a militant wing behind the racist attacks on minorities. Racism, nationalism and imperialism are close to the mindset of many Burmese rightwingers today and has this background. You can check a lot of this information on and other sites that look into Burmese history.

Racial oppression of minorities in Burma is so rooted that the pro-democracy movement doesn't defend them. Aung San Suu Kyi is not noted for defending Rohingya rights, as McKiernan points out, and hasn't said anything about the other nationalities either. I do not see that the pro-democracy movement, apart from asking the military leaders to step down, offers any solution to problems of the area, solutions that were tried and failed after 1948.

A democracy that amounts to little more than the tyranny of the majority is not a real democracy.

cerronevado (anonymous profile)
May 26, 2014 at 5:40 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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