Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country. Historically, there has been friction between the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
Anti-Rohingya rallies have become common in Myanmar. In this country, 90 percent of the population is Buddhist — and the history of ethnic strife is a long one.
During World War Two, the Japanese Imperial Army advanced into Myanmar. In those days, the country was under British rule, and was called Burma. The Buddhists sided with the Japanese and the British armed the Rohingya and other Muslims to fight back.
After independence from Britain in 1948, the Rohingya were recognized as citizens. In 1982, they were effectively made stateless because of a new citizenship law. They are viewed as illegal immigrants who are not allowed free movement within Myanmar.
Over the years, discrimination against them has increased. Recently, a group of armed Muslim insurgents claimed responsibility for attacks on security posts. It’s led to public accusations the minority group is linked to terrorism.
Ironically, freedoms given since the country started a process of democratization have made hateful speech against the Rohingya possible. Maung Thway Chun belongs to a Buddhist nationalist group. “We couldn’t say what we wanted to say during military rule. Thanks to democratization, the whole nation has developed a better ethnic consciousness,” he says.
Thway compares the Rohingya to insects. “We need to tell them to ‘Never infringe on Myanmar’s sovereignty.’ Muslims are expanding their influence throughout Myanmar without it being noticed, just like termites.”
The international community has looked to Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for help. She has not dared to recognize the Rohingya as a specific ethnic group of people. But she has also spoken out to condemn all human rights violations in her country — something that led to criticism within her own country.
“There’s a biased view being spread in Myanmar that Aung San Suu Kyi accommodates herself to Muslims and her party is an Islamist party. At the same time, she’s being criticized by the international community for killing Muslims,” says a lawyer, Thien Than Oo.
Many in Myanmar say the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. It is hard to imagine attitudes will change any time soon. Even if change starts, it’s a long road ahead.