Amid signs of escalating religious tensions in Myanmar, Buddhists yesterday marched in an anti-Muslim protest following government remarks on the mistreatment of Muslims and the burning late last month of two mosques in other parts of the country.

The demonstration took place in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, and saw thousands of Buddhists, including monks, take to the streets, Agence France-Presse reported. The group was protesting the wording of a recent government announcement referring to the state’s marginalized Muslim communities.

According to the U.N., 120,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Rakhine State live in camps for internally displaced people — there was major violence in the area in 2012 — and “arbitrary arrest and detention of Rohingya Muslims remains widespread.”

The protests followed the burning of Mosque in a village in Hpakant Township, in the country’s northern Kachin State, on Friday afternoon. Local press, Irrawaddy, reports that a mob of several hundred Buddhist nationalists a day earlier issued an ultimatum to the Muslim community to demolish an extension to the prayer hall. Nearly 30 Muslim families have reportedly left the village. On June 23, a mosque, Muslim cemetery and house belonging to a Muslim family were destroyed during a village riot in the Bago region, a southern part of the country. About 200 Muslims fled the village.

Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, just completed a 12-day tour of the country. Speaking in Yangon on Friday, she said she is concerned the new government — led by Aung San Suu Kyi — was not pursuing any action over the June 23 events, “due to fears of fueling greater tensions and provoking more conflict.”

“This is precisely the wrong signal to send,” Lee said. “The government must demonstrate that instigating and committing violence against an ethnic or religious minority community has no place in Myanmar. Perpetrators will be treated seriously in accordance with the law regardless of race, religious or ethnic background.”

Long-term challenge

Lee acknowledged that building a culture of respect for human rights is “a complex undertaking” for Myanmar’s young democracy.

She says tensions along religious lines are “pervasive across Myanmar society.”

Lee suggested the country should use public information and media campaigns “to deconstruct discriminatory and negative stereotypes.”

Speaking in June, U.N. high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he was encouraged by early statements from the new government about dealing with the situation in Rakhine, and also by the nationwide ceasefire signed last year.

However, Al Hussein noted the new government “inherited” a situation where laws deny minorities fundamental rights, and that it would “not be easy” to reverse the discrimination that is entrenched in Burmese society.

“This will be a challenging process that requires resolve, resources and time. But it must be a top priority to halt ongoing violations and prevent further ones taking place against Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities.”

While the recent riots and protests have taken place outside of the country’s main centers, there are signs that the anti-Muslim sentiment remains widespread.

Nikkei Asian Review reported late last month that a Buddhist nationalist group, known as Ma Ba Tha, has been growing into a significant political force by “playing on people's fears about a sharp increase in the Muslim population.”

Efforts by local Muslim lawyers to better represent their community — via a newly-formed Muslim lawyers association in Yangon — has been opposed by another lawyer’s network.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole