As United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail prepares to visit Burma in early August, pressure is growing from the international community and Burmese ethnic minority leaders to broaden the ongoing dialogue between the democratic opposition and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to include the concerns of Burma's minority populations. The concerns of Burma's Muslims should be part of that agenda.
During much of 2001, there was increased tension between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma, at times erupting into violence. News of the violence was quickly suppressed, however, and little detailed information about what took place reached the outside world. The government has failed to take effective action to protect Muslims in Burma, imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities and travel both inside the country and abroad, and taken no action to punish those responsible for destroying Muslim homes and mosques.
A combination of factors seems to have precipitated last year's confrontations. Destruction of Buddhist images in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March 2001, and the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., appear to have fueled increased Buddhist resentment against local Muslims.
Like previous attacks on Muslims by members of the majority Buddhist population, economic factors also played a role. The worst violence in eastern Burma, for example, took place in May and September 2001, at times when the country's economic crisis was particularly severe. During this period the black-market rate for kyat was well over 800 to the U.S. dollar, roughly 100 times the official rate. The fact that many Muslims are businessmen, shopkeepers and small-scale money changers means that they are often targeted during times of economic hardship.
Outbreaks of violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities took place in Taungoo, just over 150 kilometers north of Rangoon, in May 2001, when more than a thousand people led by robed Buddhist monks attacked Muslims shops, homes, and mosques. Many Muslims were reportedly beaten and there were credible reports of at least nine deaths. Violence spread to nearby townships and villages. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) did little or nothing to intervene to stop and prevent the attacks.
Even more serious violence erupted in Prome, northwest of Rangoon, in early October 2001, leading authorities to impose a curfew to prevent the unrest from spreading to nearby areas. Further outbreaks took place in Pegu, northeast of Rangoon, though on a smaller scale.
In Arakan State, a predominantly Muslim area, human rights violations, including forced labor, restrictions on the freedom of movement, and the destruction of mosques, have been commonplace.1 In February 2001, in the state capital Sittwe, a major frontier and commercial area with sizeable Muslim and Buddhist populations, full-scale riots broke out, resulting in deaths, destruction of Muslim homes, and the imposition of a curfew and travel restrictions.
This briefing is based on Human Rights Watch research conducted in late 2001 and early 2002, including over thirty interviews with Burmese Muslims and other religious leaders inside Burma and in nearby countries. To protect the safety of those we spoke to inside Burma, individuals' names and the times and places of interviews are not included. By combining this information with interviews with Rohingya (Muslim) refugees in camps in Bangladesh conducted by Forum Asia from May-December 2001, and published media accounts, Human Rights Watch has compiled a still incomplete but telling picture of what caused the violence, how the authorities responded, and some of the lingering abuses of religious freedom and other fundamental human rights that continue to affect Burma's Muslim population.
1 For background on Arakan State and persecution of Muslims, see Human Rights Watch, "Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?" A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 8, no. 9 (c), September 1996; Human Rights Watch/Asia and Refugees International, "Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: The Search for a Lasting Solution," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 9, no. 7 (c), August 1997; Human Rights Watch/Asia, "Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution," A Human Rights Wash Report, vol. 12, no. 3 (c), May 2000.