Burma's Violence Demands Greater International Attention

Religious violence in Burma, also known as Myanmar, has become the new breeding ground for sectarian violence. Much of the violence this past week has been instigated by radical Buddhist mobs belonging to the notorious 969 Movement at Rohingya Muslims, which constitute less than 5% of Burma’s total population, and are of Bengali heritage. The 969 Movement is led by Ashin Wirathu, a relatively unknown Buddhist monk who claims to preach nonviolence but actively loathes Muslims, who he sees as part of a malevolent mission to eradicate the country’s Buddhist majority.

Rohingya Muslims face draconian social and economic restrictions, and they are not entitled to full citizenship. Moreover, they are unable to marry individuals outside their faith. Beginning this year, mosques were heavily looted and destroyed, inciting greater animosity between the two groups.

Many Rohingya Muslims have resided in Burma for many generations but some have recently entered Burma from neighboring Bangladesh, the latter of whom have become victims of social deprivation, sectarian violence, and limited economic mobility.

Thein Sein, current President of Burma, favors the departure and resettlement of Rohingya Muslims. He believes they are contributing to the breakdown of stability in Burma in recent times. This demands some type of greater approach with the Burmese government to reach a resolution.

Why the world must act?

The Buddhist-Muslim conflict is a highly critical moment for the international community to form a unified response against such discriminately based violence. Not only should the UN pledge to end all forms of abuses against humanitarian concerns but also actively make Burma accountable for its actions against a minority people. This should entail both a pro-humanitarian and pro-peace effort for regional stability.

The religiously motivated violence is not confined to Burma but also extends beyond its borders mainly in South and Southeast Asia.

Continued violence against the Muslim minority population has deleterious consequences for Buddhists. Muslims from nearby states have retaliated attacks against them in recent months.   

In India, Muslims have sought revenge against the killings of Rohingya Muslims by destroying Buddhist holy sites, in particular where the Buddha is to have attained enlightenment. This adverse reaction by Muslims in India indicates how intertwined the violence in Burma actually is. In Indonesia, Muslims have provided donations to the Rohingya Muslims to preserve their local population. In May, two Indonesian Muslims were apprehended for attempting to blow up Burma’s embassy in Jakarta.

If tit-for-tat episodes such as these continue to occur, there is a greater probability that this might possibly create a greater spillover effect for Southeast Asian countries. The intra-Burmese conflict is ensuing to become a regional conflict that encompasses Muslims and Buddhists throughout this part of the world.

To decrease the volatility of this phenomenon, the U.S., European Union, and Japan, all of which have been providing financial stimulus to Burma ever since its election in 2011 that ended military rule, should hold Burma fully responsible for the ongoing wave of violence. If not, the violence may well seep through and create a more radical environment for regional instability.

Even more so, the UN should send a team to investigate the background of the situation and set parameters for internal stability to coalesce. Tough measures against Burma will lead to greater recognition of this massive human rights concern. This could bring more educational programs that espouse tolerance and anti-defamation policies.  

Furthermore, states that possess sizeable Muslim populations including Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia should foster constructive and meaningful dialogue with the Burmese government to reach an amenable solution. If not, we can expect even larger attacks on both sides and which would both inevitably inadvertently lead to a greater catastrophe for Burma and beyond.