Amid the violence and terror in Rakhine State, a broader anti Islamophobia that has been systematically embedded in Myanmar for the past few years is becoming more and more prominent through online hate speech, intolerant actions, and exclusion.
On 5 October, 2017, at Shwedagon Pagoda, a hugely important place of worship for Myanmar’s Buddhists, a Muslim vendor selling quail eggs in the compound was humiliated and forced to leave by some ultranationalist Buddhist monks. This is reminiscent of previous incidents such as when Muslim vendors were physically assaulted by ultranationalist monks and had their goods seized at the same temple in 2016.
Such Islamophobia has been documented and makes for worrying trend over the past few years. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) ran a two-year anti hate speech project and found that “while not all hate speech was anti-Muslim or anti-Rohingya, the overwhelming majority certainly was.” A Myanmar Facebook feed will find all manner of memes, false reports, and doctored photographs used to justify hatred towards Rohingyas, but also Muslims. It is important to note, however, that there is not a binary pro- or anti- Rohingya and/or Islam set of perspectives demonstrated on social media, but a spectrum of views from those inciting violence to those vehemently defending Rohingya rights and everything in between. However, the more extreme and hate-filled views are those that are gaining the most prominence and are most worrying.
Another disturbing finding from IWPR’s project was the emergence of signboards in rural villages that designated them as ‘Muslim-free,’ meaning that Muslims were not allowed to spend the night or own land there. It speaks volumes that of the local staff who worked on the project, the majority of whom were Burman Buddhists, only one felt comfortable enough to put their name with the project out of fear of reprisal.
State-sponsored discrimination against Muslims is also on the rise. The Burma Human Rights Network, in a report released on 5 September, 2017, based on research across the country documented the “systematic refusal” of the Government to issue ID cards to Muslims and how local authorities were also blocking the rebuilding of damaged mosques. The Karen State Government Deputy Director issued an order to administrative offices stating that all Muslims wishing to travel were required to report their travel to local offices and provide various recommendation letters to obtain permission. While the Karen State Chief Minister has since stated that such an order was a mistake and did not have her blessing, it is a particularly worrying example of how certain actors within local Government are attempting to place disproportionate restrictions on Muslim communities in the name of security.
With the current crisis in Rakhine State, and the growing Islamophobia, it is vital that preventative measures must be taken to end the spread of hate speech and incitement to violence against minorities. The international community, with their vested interests in Myanmar, must also remain vigilant. The emergence of reports of how the UN in Myanmar has deprioritized human rights over the past few years and suppressed a report from May 2017 that warned of its unpreparedness for the impending crisis in Rakhine State is particularly alarming in light of violence against Rohingya community and the mass exodus across the border to Bangladesh.
Given the violence in Rakhine State and the spread of discriminatory practices towards Muslims throughout the country, the Government must adopt legislation and policies that protect religious minorities, including clamping down on those who incite hatred and violence, such as the ultranationalist movement, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, otherwise known as Ma Ba Tha. Ma Ba Tha was banned by the Government but still continues functioning while ultranationalist leader, Wirathu and his followers, continue with his mission of spreading hate speech with no legal action taken against them. Furthermore, the international community must not sweep human rights concerns under the carpet and ensure that human rights are of utmost priority in this delicate and sensitive climate. While relations between people from differing religions have not always been smooth, they have not always been so fractious either and there are many, particularly from the Buddhist faith, who abhor the vicious attacks on Muslims. The aforementioned Muslim vendor who was expelled from Shwedagon Pagoda was also supported by many people both in person and online who gave their support and criticized the actions of the monks. Myanmar is a diverse society, and strength should be taken from this diversity, not weakened by those who wish to divide the people for their own political gain.
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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”