A lot has changed here in Burma in the last three years. Large-scale political prisoner releases have occurred. There has been a lessening of censorship and surveillance. The government has permitted some movement toward democratic reforms—although much of that progress now appears to have stalled.
Not all changes, however, have been positive. In the midst of Burma’s recent transformations, caustic and divisive anti-Muslim voices have been on the rise. In May and October 2012 in Burma’s western Arakan State, ethnic Arakanese Buddhists with the backing of local authorities carried out extensive attacks on vulnerable minority Rohingya Muslims and other Muslim populations in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” that amounted to crimes against humanity. Hundreds of people were killed and ultimately more than 100,000 were displaced. The effects of that violence are still felt now. Today most Rohingya in Arakan State live in segregated neighborhoods and camps, unable to travel freely and left with inadequate food, water, sanitation, or access to livelihoods. Unsurprisingly, more than 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma by boat to Malaysia or Bangladesh. Hundreds are believed to have died in perilous journeys in leaky open boats.
Muslims in other parts of Burma also face persecution. Not all Muslims in Burma live in Arakan State, and most are not Rohingya. Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s two largest cities, have dozens of Shia and Sunni mosques, as throughout Burma, Hindu mosques, Protestant churches, and Catholic cathedrals sit side by side with Buddhist temples. This is why this new rise of Buddhist extremism is so worrying.
Sadly, the government has done little to hold those responsible for the 2012 anti-Muslim violence. More recently, the government inflamed the situation by drafting an “Action Plan” that appears to formalize segregation through restrictive provisions imposed on Rohingya and denies most of them access to citizenship. Those who refuse to declare themselves as “Bengali” – or Bangladeshi national – in a citizenship assessment process, or fall short of the plan’s impossibly high standards for proving citizenship, face indefinite detention in closed camps.
In November, the government of Burma will host a large set of international leaders at the East Asia Summit and associated ASEAN summit, including US President Barack Obama, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is important that these world leaders press the Burmese President Thein Sein to address the anti-Muslim crisis in his country. President Jokowi is especially well-placed to do so because he has pledged to use his new presidency to lessen religious tensions in Indonesia. President Obama should use his influence on these issues as well.
The Burmese government needs to commit to acting against groups such as Ma BaTha or the notorious 969 that have engaged in hate speech inciting violence, discrimination or other crimes. World leaders should make it crystal clear to President Thein Sein that any further signs of connivance between extremist groups and government officials will harm Burma’s efforts to garner more international support. That’s a message the government of Burma needs to hear loud and clear.