While archeological findings show that pre-historical Burma was home to a civilization that was the first to turn copper into bronze, grow rice and domesticate chickens, present-day Myanmar is far from its early days. After years of colonization, civil wars, five decades of military rule and international isolation, the country has become one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world, accused of many human rights violations and corruption including the widespread use of forced labor, human and drugs trafficking and sexual violence. Over 30% of the population lives in poverty and around 37% of the public is unemployed.
The challenges Myanmar faces today are not limited to these.
Myanmar’s population consists of many distinct ethnic groups each with its own history, culture and language. The majority Burman (Bamar) ethnic group makes up about two-thirds of the population and controls the military and the government, while the remaining one-third of the population - ethnic minorities - live in rural areas where natural riches are abundant, but many of them have been forcibly removed from their homes by the military government.
The Rohingya, one of the Muslim ethnic minorities of Myanmar, is estimated to have been reduced to 1.1 million, and they suffer serious discrimination and abuse. In fact, the Rohingya are considered to be one of the most persecuted communities in the world. They are subjected to arbitrary arrests, extortion, forced labor, rape, discriminatory restriction in employment, eviction, arbitrary taxes and violence. These unwanted people are not accepted as citizens of Burma, and therefore stripped of citizenship rights such as education, healthcare services, the right to marry and the right to travel, and to top it all off the NGO organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the primary supplier of medical care is now officially banned in Rakhine state, where mostly Rohingya people live. With the aid workers gone, now they have little to no health care and the situation is deteriorating with each passing day as we hear news of malnutrition, starvation and disease rising in camps in Rakhine.
Ethnic conflicts in Myanmar have risen to an alarming level with systematic killings and the worst suffering of its Muslim minority for the last decade. Deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have now become a daily event, not only in Rakhine state where most of the oppressed Rohingya Muslims live, but in other parts of the country as well. Before 2012 existing tensions between the Hindu population and Muslims were primarily restricted to Rakhine state. Now it has spread to the central heartland, to the largest city, Yangon, and other important cities like Mandalay and Lashio. Myanmar authorities are said to have encouraged these clashes by either turning a blind eye to them or even by aiding the rioters.
A broader look at the conflict the country is facing today shows that the inciting force behind it is the rise of radicalism, under the disguise of the protection of Buddhist values and traditions. Buddhist radicalism and ultra-nationalism poses a risk to the country as it adopts violence as a method and this madness grows each and every day with an alarming speed, even as to reach beyond Burma.
The formation of the ultra-nationalist '969 Movement' in 2012 under the leadership of the radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, also known as the butcher of Burmese Muslims, set the stage for further promoting anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. While the movement depicts itself as a peaceful nationalist movement founded for promoting and protecting religion, the underlying rhetoric of the group is that the Muslim minority - which totals only 4% of the total population - is a threat because it says that they will eventually become the majority and thus occupy the country. The movement regards Islam as an existential threat and calls its members to stand up and save their religion and traditions.
Though the group denies any connection with the acts of violence against Muslims, it has clearly contributed to the conflict by inspiring the Buddhists to hatred and campaigning for exclusionary practices like boycotting Muslim-owned businesses. Monasteries associated with the movement have enrolled 60,000 Burmese children into Sunday school programs. It would be a pity and a waste of good human resources to see these children grow into pro-violence radicals of the future Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
Many minorities of the country as well as impartial human rights groups claim that a policy of “Burmanisation” is ongoing. The government’s recent draft plan for citizenship offers the Rohingha either to be classified as Bengali or face indefinite detention. Earlier this year almost all Rohingya were left outside the census after refusing to be listed as Bengalis. The Rohingya are well aware that this is a well-planned effort to confirm their statelessness and expel them from Myanmar.
To overcome the ever-downward spiral of hatred in the country and radicalism, the Myanmar government should adopt an education policy that teaches the true teachings of Buddhism, promotes love and brotherhood within society and explains to its public the consequences of terror and violence in order to defeat ignorance and radicalism. In its transition to democracy, Myanmar should gain greater speed and condemn any act of violence and extremism before radicalism ruins the country and brings it to a darker place. With its ancient traditions and culture that encourage love and kindness to all mankind, Myanmar deserves to be a peaceful, modern, high-quality country that is safe to visit and that is open to the world, both in terms of society and economics.
Myanmar’s self-image as a nation must change. The country must embrace its tradition and culture as a whole, that is to say, by also including its ethnic riches. Otherwise the current situation poses a threat to the country and hinders it from becoming a wealthier nation by being a stable land where investors may come and help the country prosper. However, if Myanmar continues to fail its peoples, regardless of their race and religion, the international community will have to take collective action in order to protect the oppressed population.
Adnan Oktar's piece on Muslim Mirror & Malaysiakini & Burma Times: