Muslims vanish as Buddhist attacks approach Myanmar's biggest city

Published: March 30, 2013

A Muslim Rohingya woman sits outside her temperary shelter at a village in Minpyar in Rakhine state on October 28, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

SIT KWIN: The Muslims of Sit Kwin were always a small group who numbered no more than 100 of the village’s 2,000 people. But as sectarian violence led by Buddhist mobs spreads across central Myanmar, they and many other Muslims are disappearing.

Their homes, shops and mosques destroyed, some end up in refugee camps or hide in the homes of friends or relatives. Dozens have been killed.

“We don’t know where they are,” says Aung Ko Myint, 24, a taxi driver in Sit Kwin, a farming village where on Friday Buddhists ransacked a store owned by the town’s last remaining Muslim. “He escaped this morning just before the mob got here.”

Since 42 people were killed in violence that erupted in Meikhtila town on March 20, unrest led by hardline Buddhists has spread to at least 10 other towns and villages in central Myanmar, with the latest incidents only about a two-hour drive from the commercial capital, Yangon.

The crowds are fired up by anti-Muslim rhetoric spread over the Internet and by word of mouth from monks preaching a movement known as “969″. The three numbers refer to various attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. But it has come to represent a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism which urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim-run shops and services.

Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large Muslim communities in Yangon, Mandalay and towns across Myanmar’s heartland where the religions have co-existed for generations.

But as violence spreads from village to village, the unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military rule that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.

Dusk-to-dawn curfews are in effect in many areas of Bago, the region where Sit Kwin lies, while four townships in central Myanmar are under a state of emergency imposed last week.

“I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public,” President Thein Sein said in a nationally televised speech on Thursday, warning “political opportunists and religious extremists” against instigating further violence.

The unrest has made almost 13,000 people homeless, according to the United Nations. State-run media reports 68 people have been arrested.

Rumours

The trouble in Sit Kwin began four days ago when people riding 30 motorbikes drove through town urging villagers to expel Muslim residents, said witnesses. They then trashed a mosque and a row of Muslim shops and houses.

“They came with anger that was born from rumours,” said one man who declined to be identified.

Further south, police in Letpadan have stepped up patrols in the farming village of 22,000 people about 160 km (100 miles) from Yangon.

Three monks led a 30-strong group towards a mosque on Friday. Police dispersed the crowd, many of whom carried knives and staves, and briefly detained two people. They were later released at the request of township officials, police said.

“I won’t let it happen again,” said police commander Phone Myint. “The president yesterday gave the police authority to control the situation.”

The abbot who led the protest, Khamainda, said he took to the streets after hearing rumours passed by other monks by telephone, about violence between Buddhists and Muslims in other towns. He said he wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2001.

“There is no problem with the way they live. But they are the minority and we are the majority. And when the minority insults our religion we get concerned,” he told Reuters. “We will come out again if we get a chance.

Letpadan villagers fear the tension will explode. “I’m sure they will come back and destroy the mosque,” says Aung San Kyaw, 35, a Muslim. “We’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Across the street, Hla Tan, a 67-year-old Buddhist, shares the fear. “We have lived peacefully for years. Nothing can happen between us unless outsiders come. But if they come, I know we can’t stop them,” he said.

North of Sit Kwin, the farming town of Minhla endured about three hours of violence on both Wednesday and Thursday.

About 300 people, many from the nearby village of Ye Kyaw, gathered on Wednesday afternoon. The crowd swelled to about 800 as townsfolk joined, a Minhla policeman told Reuters. They then destroyed three mosques and 17 shops and houses, he said. No Buddhist monks were involved, said witnesses.

“Very nervous”

The mob carried sticks, metal pipes and hammers, said Hla Soe, 60, a Buddhist who runs an electrical repair shop in Minhla. “No one could stop them,” he said.

About 200 soldiers and police eventually intervened to restore a fragile peace. “I’m very nervous that it will happen again,” he said.

About 500 of Minhla’s township’s 100,000 people are Muslims, said the police officer, who estimated two-thirds of those Muslims had fled.

However, Tun Tun is staying. “I have no choice,” says the 26-year-old, whose tea shop was destroyed and looted by Buddhists, one armed with a chainsaw.

He plans to rebuild his shop, whose daily income of 10,000 kyat ($11) supports an extended family of 12. On the wall of his ransacked kitchen is a portrait of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He did not believe she could do anything to help.

Tun Tun traced the rising communal tension in Minhla to speeches given on February 26 and 27 by a celebrated monk visiting from Mon State, to the east of Yangon. He spoke to a crowd of 2,000 about the “969 movement”, said Win Myint, 59, who runs a Buddhist community centre which hosted the monk.

After the 969 talks, Muslims were jeered and fewer Buddhists frequented his tea shop, said Tun Tun. Stickers bearing pastel hues overlaid with the numerals 969 appeared on non-Muslim street stalls across Minhla.

President Thein Sein’s ambitious reform programme has won praise, but his government has also been criticised for failing to stem violence last year in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where officials say 110 people were killed and 120,000 were left homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said on Thursday he had received reports of “state involvement” in the recent violence at Meikhtila.

Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs”, said the rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”

Ye Htut, a presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, called those accusations “groundless”. “In fact, the military and the government could not be concerned more about this situation,” he said in a Facebook post.

Late on Friday, three monks were preparing to give another “969″ speech in Ok Kan, a town 113 km (70 miles) from Yangon.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • bilal
    Mar 30, 2013 - 3:43PM

    shame on all the Muslim countries for not taking any action against such terrorism

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  • Mar 30, 2013 - 3:48PM

    wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2001.

    That is the reaction in other countries if we say our country our will. Are we qualified to condemn this as we are routinely terrorizing the minorities and other sects in Pakistan. If the government do not restrict the persons like Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul etc. then the reactions will be world wide.

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  • Gulam Rasool "Kuldeep sharma"
    Mar 30, 2013 - 5:43PM

    @bilal
    Myanmar Incidents are absolutely wrong, but what if Christians ask to take action from US,UK,RUSSIA,GERMANY, FRANCE, ITALY…..etc. after Joseph colony & other lot of incidents? (If this happens with Minorities its ok but with Muslims its wrong?)
    @Abdul Rahim
    Brother you are absolutely right but unfortunately very few people can understand what you want to say.

    Gulam Rasool”Kuldeep sharma”
    New Delhi

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  • Fedup Pakistani
    Mar 30, 2013 - 5:52PM

    Taste of our own medicine….

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  • Fedup Pakistani
    Mar 30, 2013 - 5:53PM

    @bilal:
    Oh I C…..

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  • mes
    Mar 30, 2013 - 6:04PM

    @bilal:

    yes, shame on all countries for not taking action against Pakistan either. I wanted to see the west take the same action against Pakistan as it took against Syria, Libya etc.

    Recommend

  • uoc
    Mar 30, 2013 - 6:05PM

    same thing happened to nonmuslims, nonsunnis in pakistan and still happening.

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  • Ali tanoli
    Mar 30, 2013 - 6:48PM

    @kuldeep sherma.
    There is no question whats right or wrong but question is why burmese govt and peoples doing this unjustice with muslims of rangoon since 1942 and beyond and u know they dont allowed to have citizenship what a sad part is there noble prison lady dont even talk about that and white world who cry of east temour indonesia and small incident happend in israel dont even know or wanna know about that and time magzine who put big picture if some thing done by muslim but dont care if that is peacefull non muslim do what a shame and sad part of two faces.

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  • Ali tanoli
    Mar 30, 2013 - 6:50PM

    @kuldip sherma
    westren world does more than we think …..

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  • rocky3
    Mar 30, 2013 - 7:56PM

    same is happening in srilanka

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21973292

    why so much hate in the world

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  • IZ
    Mar 30, 2013 - 8:13PM

    Such a senseless cycle of violence, going on and on. What have these poor people got to do with the Taliban?

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  • sidra khan
    Mar 31, 2013 - 12:06AM

    @Abdul Rahim:
    what these people have got to do with taliban…..that is quite nonsense to say that this is the reaction of bamiyan incident…..rohingya muslims are facinf persecution since 1940s….n i guess bamiyan incident took place in 2001….

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  • Naveen
    Mar 31, 2013 - 12:41AM

    Pity the poor Rohingyas. They are now stuck. Rakhines label them as Bengali migrants while Bangladesh is already too crowded to take any more refugees. Where is that Noble Peace Prize winner who was lecturing us for not backing her (and by corollary democracy) in last few years ? Is this democracy or tyranny of majority?

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  • Rahul
    Mar 31, 2013 - 1:06AM

    @bilal:
    Kindly leave Mr. Zaid Hamid’s worldview and embrace the real world.

    There’s a history to everything-> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RohingyainsurgencyinWesternBurma

    Ethnic strife is endemic in that region. There have been similar troubles in India’s North-East (that borders Myanmar) due to various ethnicities/tribes inhabiting the same region. People in that part, have a strong territorial culture and have these daydreams of ejecting other ethnicities/tribes to establish ‘homelands’. Another reason is the sparse population which makes little changes in population enough to bring about big changes in relative share of ethnicities.

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  • Raj - USA
    Mar 31, 2013 - 1:32AM

    @Ali tanoli:
    You say:
    “westren world does more than we think …..”

    Why do you want to blame the West when what is now happening in Myanmar is actually supported by China? As I have said many times earlier, OIC or UN can do nothing. China will veto every UN resolution condemning Myanmar. In fact, OIC or UN do not want to do anything. They will do no more than issuing customary statements.

    China has a sizable Buddhist population and they shall support the Myanmar buddhists over the muslims, even if it is the muslims who are being victimized. Atrocities committed by muslims of Pakistan like raped conversions, destruction of religious places, killings of non-muslims and destruction of their properties, have left little sympathy for any muslim cause in other countries too. As muslims keep with continuing such acts in their countries, and at the same time keep blaming others, it will only get worse for the muslims. What has started in Myanmar with silent support from China is just the beginning. It has already spread to Sri Lanka too.

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  • SK5
    Mar 31, 2013 - 7:53AM

    Some real geniuses here trying to compare Burmas treatment of muslims with Pakistans of its minorities. Point is both are wrong on their part and should rectify such situations because human life is at stake here and is injust. Are you people really educated just because you know how to put pen on paper?.

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  • Vivek
    Mar 31, 2013 - 8:59AM

    Talk is cheap, if Pakistan wants to be the leader of the Ummah, then they should immediately offer shelter to these oppressed muslims.

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  • truthbetold
    Mar 31, 2013 - 1:17PM

    Why are not Pakistan and other Muslim countries not offering asylum for these poor Rahihgya muslims who face threat to their lives and property? Where are those Muslims who shed crocodile tears for pan-Islamic causes?

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  • Raj - USA
    Mar 31, 2013 - 1:57PM

    @Vivek:
    You say:Talk is cheap, if Pakistan wants to be the leader of the Ummah, then they should immediately offer shelter to these oppressed muslims.

    Will Pakistan have the guts to do any such thing like offering shelter to the Myanmar Muslims? They would not sent even some aid to those muslims in Myanmar. Nor shall there be any official statement condemning, or even expressing concern for such incidences. Pakistan will not raise this at UN also or even send a memo to UN. If they dare, China will tear Pakistan apart to many pieces. They can only invite Sharukh Khan and ask Afzal Guru’s body to be given to his family. This myanmar incidence has been going on for over 6 months and the news has appeared in ET many times. Yet, you will not see any Pakistani commenting on China’s role on this. The likes of Ali Tanoli will keep blaming Israel and the West. Pakistanis shiver China. To cover their shame, Pakistanis will call it friendship.

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  • expaki
    Mar 31, 2013 - 2:40PM

    @Raj – USA: “Pakistanis shiver China. To cover their shame, Pakistanis will call it friendship”
    Raj Sahib, very wrong. Pakistanis call it ” ALL WEATHER FRIENDSHIP” so Umma is swirling
    in “ALL WEATHER” thunderstorm.

    Moderator sahib, censoring my comments does not change, ground realities. thank you.

    Recommend

  • expaki
    Mar 31, 2013 - 2:48PM

    @truthbetold: because they are busy at home : http://tribune.com.pk/story/528758/blind-hatred/

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  • Som
    Mar 31, 2013 - 2:52PM

    @Raj – USA:
    Well said

    Recommend

  • expaki
    Mar 31, 2013 - 3:57PM

    @Fedup Pakistani: WELL SAID, you did not name the president – inventor of that “pharmaceutical ” made in pakistan.

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  • expaki
    Mar 31, 2013 - 4:00PM

    @bilal Sahib, yes you can take “action” but who will lead this action, Khalifa Zahid Hamid?

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  • Gulam Rasool "Kuldeep sharma"
    Apr 1, 2013 - 10:42AM

    @Ali tanoli
    its Gulam Rasool”Kuldeep sharma” not only Kuldeep sharma.
    if you will think, you will know whats it means.

    Gulam Rasool”Kuldeep sharma”
    New Delhi

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  • It is time
    Apr 1, 2013 - 11:15AM

    He said he wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2001.

    Yes,it is time someone did.

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