Two years into its transition from dictatorship to democracy, Myanmar is finding out how dangerous freedom can be. Since June 2012, when fighting broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in western Arakan state, attacks against Myanmar’s tiny Muslim minority have spread throughout the country. More than 200 people have been killed in Buddhist-Muslim riots, and more than 150,000 rendered homeless ― most of them Muslims.
Many Burmese think that former regime figures are stoking the attacks, hoping to create an excuse for the military to reassert its influence. Perhaps. Another set of Burmese leaders, however, have quite openly fueled sectarian tensions. Monks associated with the 969 movement ― named after the attributes of the Buddha and Buddhism ― have promoted a boycott of Muslim businesses and a ban on interfaith marriages. Some have been accused of egging on followers as they torched Muslim homes and shops.
In hugely popular sermons distributed on YouTube and DVDs, 46-year-old Wirathu (he goes by one name), the most prominent 969 leader, warns that Muslims have a secret plan to destroy Buddhism in Myanmar. He accuses Muslim men of seeking to marry Buddhist women in order to strip them of their religion, and Muslim women of propagating furiously to increase the numbers of their community, currently only 4 percent of the population.
Wirathu is not a fringe figure. In Arakan state, local Buddhists have long resented the Muslim community known as Rohingya, whom they view as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Elsewhere in Myanmar, economic anxieties have increased tensions between the two communities; Muslims dominate medium-size businesses in construction, transportation and other sectors. Even Western-educated Burmese ― including some supporters of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi ― insist that Persian Gulf money is flooding into the country to build mosques and train terrorists. What impoverished and unlettered Burmese believe can easily be imagined.
Myanmar’s new openness has helped the 969 message to spread. With censorship lifted, many newspapers reprint elaborate conspiracy theories and Internet rumors as if they were fact. Wirathu’s sermons circulate freely, and his Facebook page has more than 16,000 “likes.” The monk himself, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim hatred, was released in 2010 as part of an amnesty for political prisoners.
The answer is not to limit Myanmar’s newfound freedoms ― let alone to return to junta rule ― but to use them to encourage tolerance rather than hate. Burmese courts, for their part, could deliver more equitable justice: thus far only two Buddhists have been convicted for their role in the recent attacks, while 10 Muslims have received jail terms. Local officials and police have been accused of standing by during riots, whether out of sympathy or fear; they haven’t been held to account by their superiors.
Suu Kyi has hesitated to challenge the 969 message openly and loudly ― arguing that to do so would only embolden the extremists. She possesses the moral authority to influence the masses, and has a responsibility to speak out.
Yet we would also like to hear other persuasive Buddhist voices within Myanmar and worldwide join her in more loudly condemning anti-Muslim prejudice ― including the Dalai Lama and his prominent Western supporters. International companies, too, should make clear to Burmese leaders that they are paying attention. Foreign investment could rise to as much as $200 billion by 2030 according to McKinsey & Co., from $45 billion in 2010, before the junta began to loosen its control. All this would be at risk if religious violence starts tearing the country asunder.
Changing attitudes about Myanmar’s Muslims will take time, education and greater economic opportunity. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared this week, some form of citizenship will eventually have to be offered to the Rohingya, who are currently treated as stateless people. The turmoil in Myanmar is already metastasizing dangerously through the region. On July 7, assailants bombed the temple at Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddha is thought to have gained enlightenment. Muslims angry about the attacks in Myanmar are thought to have been responsible; a young Burmese monk was badly injured in the attack.
Continued strife will undermine the progress Myanmar has made toward democracy. The country’s next elections are scheduled for 2015, and Suu Kyi says she wants to become president. That only makes it more important for her to stand up and challenge those among her fellow citizens ― even saffron-robed monks ― who are abusing the liberties they’ve gained.