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নয় ছয় নয়, বৌদ্ধ চরমপন্থার বার্মিজ সংস্করণ

June 21, 2013
বিশ্ব থেকে বিচ্ছিন্ন সামরিক জান্তা আর বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষুদের বার্মা বিশ্বের সাথে যোগাযোগ স্থাপনের পরপরই চরমপন্থী বৌদ্ধ অনুশাসন ও সন্ত্রাস নিয়ে আমাদের সামনে এসেছে। ৯৬৯ — বুদ্ধ, বৌদ্ধ ধর্মীয় কর্মকাণ্ড ও বৌদ্ধ গোষ্ঠীবদ্ধতার প্রতীক — এমনটিই বলছে বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষুরা, কিন্তু ৯৬৯ — এখন বার্মিজ বৌদ্ধত্ববাদের প্রতীক, চরমপন্থার প্রতীক, সন্ত্রাসবাদের প্রতীক — এবং বার্মিজ ভিক্ষুদের প্রায় অর্ধেক এখন এই ৯৬৯ সংঘের অনুসারী এই সংঘের প্রসারের নিবেদিতপ্রাণ কর্মী। সবচেয়ে উদ্বেগজনক হচ্ছে এই হিংসা ও চরমপন্থা ছড়ানো হচ্ছে সারা দেশে শিশু কিশোরদের মধ্যে ‘রবিবারের ধর্মশালা’র মধ্য দিয়ে, কমিউনিটি সেন্টারের মাধ্যমে এবং ধর্মকথার নামে হিংসাত্মক ডিভিডি প্রচারের মাধ্যমে।  নিউইয়র্ক টাইমসের এই রিপোর্ট  এই প্রচারের প্রধান প্রবক্তা হিসেবে নাম এসেছে হিংসাত্মক বাণী প্রচারে জেল খাটা ভিক্ষু আশিন উইরাথু, যে সাম্প্রতিক রাজবন্দী মুক্তির প্রশাসনিক সিদ্ধান্তের আওতায় জেল থেকে ছাড়া পেয়েছে। কারা আছে ৯৬৯এর নেপথ্যে? নিউইয়র্ক টাইমসের এই রিপোর্ট তা বলছে না, কিন্তু জোর আশঙ্কা বার্মিজ ‘মাদক সম্রাট’ ও তাদের ঘনিষ্ঠ ‘সামরিক শক্তি’ই সেই নেপথ্য নির্দেশক।
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After a ritual prayer atoning for past sins, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk with a rock-star following in Myanmar, sat before an overflowing crowd of thousands of devotees and launched into a rant against what he called “the enemy” — the country’s Muslim minority.

“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu said, referring to Muslims.

“I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Ashin Wirathu told a reporter after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”

The world has grown accustomed to a gentle image of Buddhism defined by the self-effacing words of the Dalai Lama, the global popularity of Buddhist-inspired meditation and postcard-perfect scenes from Southeast Asia and beyond of crimson-robed, barefoot monks receiving alms from villagers at dawn.

But over the past year, images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Ashin Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar — and revealed a darker side of the country’s greater freedoms after decades of military rule. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.

Ashin Wirathu denies any role in the riots. But his critics say that at the very least his anti-Muslim preaching is helping to inspire the violence.

What began last year on the fringes of Burmese society has grown into a nationwide movement whose agenda now includes boycotts of Muslim-made goods. Its message is spreading through regular sermons across the country that draw thousands of people and through widely distributed DVDs of those talks. Buddhist monasteries associated with the movement are also opening community centers and a Sunday school program for 60,000 Buddhist children nationwide.

The hate-filled speeches and violence have endangered Myanmar’s path to democracy, raising questions about the government’s ability to keep the country’s towns and cities safe and its willingness to crack down or prosecute Buddhists in a Buddhist-majority country. The killings have also reverberated in Muslim countries across the region, tarnishing what was almost universally seen abroad as a remarkable and rare peaceful transition from military rule to democracy. In May, the Indonesian authorities foiled what they said was a plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta in retaliation for the assaults on Muslims.

Ashin Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the radical movement, skates a thin line between free speech and incitement, taking advantage of loosened restrictions on expression during a fragile time of transition. He was himself jailed for eight years by the now-defunct military junta for inciting hatred. Last year, as part of a release of hundreds of political prisoners, he was freed.

In his recent sermon, he described the reported massacre of schoolchildren and other Muslim inhabitants in the central city of Meiktila in March, documented by a human rights group, as a show of strength.

“If we are weak,” he said, “our land will become Muslim.”

Buddhism would seem to have a secure place in Myanmar. Nine in 10 people are Buddhist, as are nearly all the top leaders in the business world, the government, the military and the police. Estimates of the Muslim minority range from 4 percent to 8 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 55 million people while the rest are mostly Christian or Hindu.

But Ashin Wirathu, who describes himself as a nationalist, says Buddhism is under siege by Muslims who are having more children than Buddhists and buying up Buddhist-owned land. In part, he is tapping into historical grievances that date from British colonial days when Indians, many of them Muslims, were brought into the country as civil servants and soldiers.

The muscular and nationalist messages he has spread have alarmed Buddhists in other countries.

The Dalai Lama, after the riots in March, said killing in the name of religion was “unthinkable” and urged Myanmar’s Buddhists to contemplate the face of the Buddha for guidance.

Phra Paisal Visalo, a Buddhist scholar and prominent monk in neighboring Thailand, says the notion of “us and them” promoted by Myanmar’s radical monks is anathema to Buddhism. But he lamented that his criticism and that of other leading Buddhists outside the country have had “very little impact.”

“Myanmar monks are quite isolated and have a thin relationship with Buddhists in other parts of the world,” Phra Paisal said. One exception is Sri Lanka, another country historically bedeviled by ethnic strife. Burmese monks have been inspired by the assertive political role played by monks from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.

As Myanmar has grown more polarized, there have been nascent signs of a backlash against the anti-Muslim preaching.

Among the most disappointed with the outbreaks of violence and hateful rhetoric are some of the leaders of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a peaceful uprising led by Buddhist monks against military rule.

“We were not expecting this violence when we chanted for peace and reconciliation in 2007,” said the abbot of Pauk Jadi monastery, Ashin Nyana Nika, 55, who attended a meeting earlier this month sponsored by Muslim groups to discuss the issue. (Ashin is the honorific for Burmese monks.) Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, says the monks in the country are divided nearly equally between moderates and extremists.

He considers himself in the moderate camp. But as a measure of the deeply ingrained suspicions toward Muslims in the society, he said he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”

Ashin Wirathu has tapped into that anxiety, which some describe as the “demographic pressures” coming from neighboring Bangladesh. There is wide disdain in Myanmar for a group of about one million stateless Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya, some of whom migrated from Bangladesh. Clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhists last year in western Myanmar roiled the Buddhist community and appear to have played a role in later outbreaks of violence throughout the country. Ashin Wirathu said they served as his inspiration to spread his teachings.

The theme song to Ashin Wirathu’s movement speaks of people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us.”

“We will build a fence with our bones if necessary,” runs the song’s refrain. Muslims are not explicitly mentioned in the song but Ashin Wirathu said the lyrics refer to them. Pamphlets handed out at his sermon demonizing Muslims said that “Myanmar is currently facing a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.”

Many in Myanmar speculate, without offering proof, that Ashin Wirathu is allied with hard-line Buddhist elements in the country who want to harness the nationalism of his movement to rally support ahead of elections in 2015. Ashin Wirathu denies any such links.

But the government has done little to rein him in. During Ashin Wirathu’s visit here in Taunggyi, traffic policemen cleared intersections for his motorcade.

Once inside the monastery, as part of a highly choreographed visit, his followers led a procession through crowds of followers who prostrated themselves as he passed.

Ashin Wirathu’s movement calls itself 969, three digits that monks say symbolize the virtues of the Buddha, Buddhist practices and the Buddhist community.

Stickers with the movement’s logo are now ubiquitous nationwide on cars, motorcycles and shops. The movement has also begun a signature campaign calling for a ban on interfaith marriages, and pamphlets are distributed at sermons listing Muslim brands and shops to be avoided.

In Mawlamyine, a multicultural city southeast of Yangon, a monastery linked to the 969 movement has established the courses of Buddhist instruction for children, which it calls “Sunday dhamma schools.” Leaders of the monasteries there seek to portray their campaign as a sort of Buddhist revivalist movement.

“The main thing is that our religion and our nationality don’t disappear,” said Ashin Zadila, a senior monk at the Myazedi Nanoo monastery outside the city.

Yet despite efforts at describing the movement as nonthreatening, many Muslims are worried.

Two hours before Ashin Wirathu rolled into Taunggyi in a motorcade that included 60 honking motorcycles, Tun Tun Naing, a Muslim vendor in the city’s central market, spoke of the visit in a whisper.

“I’m really frightened,” he said, stopping in midsentence when customers entered his shop. “We tell the children not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Mandalay and Yangon, Myanmar, and Poypiti Amatatham from Bangkok.

Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists, The New York Times  <nyt_byline>

Photo Credit: Adam Dean for The New York Times

A version of this article appeared in print on June 21, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists.
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5 Comments
  1. Aung Suu Kyi Slams ‘Buddhist Marriage Law’ For Muslim Men

    Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has criticized a marriage law proposed by a group of nationalist Buddhist monks, which restricts Muslim men and non-Buddhists from marrying Buddhist women, calling it “discriminatory” and a violation of “human rights.”

    Under the proposed law, non-Buddhist men wishing to marry Buddhist women need to convert to Buddhism.They also need to seek permission from the local government officials as well as from the parents of the intended bride.

    The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate called the law as one-sided and unfair. “This is one-sided. Why only women? You cannot treat the women unfairly,” said Suu Kyi.”There should not be any discrimination between the men and women,” she added, labeling the recently proposed law as gender discrimination.

    Aung Suu Kyi, who is prepared to fight the 2015 presidential elections, said that the law is “anti-Buddhist” and contrary to the laws of the country.

    “I also understand that this is not in accordance with the laws of the country and especially that it is not part of Buddhism,” said Kyi. “It is a violation of women’s rights and human rights.”

    Aung San Suu Kyi herself is barred by the country’s constitution from becoming the president as she had married a foreigner.

    I want to be president and I’m quite frank about it,” she told journalists at the World Economic Forum in the capital Naypyitaw on June 6, reports Reuters.

    Speaking at Suu Kyi’s 68th birth day ceremony Wednesday, the Former Military Commander Tin Oo called upon the military to support the opposition leader’s bid for the presidential election. Among others, the U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell also attended the birthday ceremony.

    Addressing the gathering, the Suu Kyi called for mutual respect among the different communities in the country.

    In recent months, a wave of religious and sectarian riots engulfed Myanmar formally known as Burma where majority Buddhists and minority Muslims fought against each other.

    http://www.hngn.com/articles/5933/20130621/burma-myanmar-aungsuukyi-buddhist-muslims-law-marriage.htm

  2. বার্মা যদি ব্যাপারটাকে এভাবে দেখে বাংলাভাষী রোহিঙ্গারা বাঙালি, রাখাইনরা রাখাইন, শানরা শান, বর্মনরা বর্মন এবং এরা সবাই বার্মার নাগরিক তাতে আমার কোনোই আপত্তি নেই বরং শক্ত সমর্থন আছে, এবং বলার আছে বাংলাদেশও বার্মাকে অনুসরণ করুক বাঙালিরা বাঙালি, চাকমারা চাকমা, গারোরা গারো হয়েই বাংলাদেশের নাগরিক হোক। তামিলরা তামিল হয়ে বাঙালিরা বাঙালি হয়ে ভারতীয় হোক। জাতিরাষ্ট্র বিদায় নিক এশিয়ার এই দরিদ্র অঞ্চলটায় জনজাতি রাষ্ট্রের পত্তন হোক।

    https://pratyahikpath.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/%E0%A6%8F%E0%A6%B6%E0%A6%BF%E0%A7%9F%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0-%E0%A6%8F%E0%A6%87-%E0%A6%A6%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A6%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0-%E0%A6%85%E0%A6%9E%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%9A%E0%A6%B2%E0%A6%9F%E0%A6%BE/

  3. masud karim permalink

    Can the government manage the challenge posed by Ma Ba Tha?

    http://frontiermyanmar.net/en/can-the-government-manage-the-challenge-posed-by-ma-ba-tha

    The nationalist group known as Ma Ba Tha and one of its leading members, U Wirathu, have reacted defiantly to moves aimed at curbing their malevolent influence, posing a delicate problem for the NLD government.

    By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

    ON MARCH 10, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the supreme body representing the nation’s community of monks, or sangha, issued an order banning the infamous monk U Wirathu from giving speeches for a year.

    This is not the first time the committee, better known as Ma Ha Na, has taken on Wirathu. Last year, the committee ruled that Ma Ba Tha, the hardline nationalist group of which Wirathu is a leading member, was not a legal organisation. The decision was endorsed by the National League for Democracy, which had only taken office a few months earlier.

    Some monks have been sharply critical of the NLD since it was in opposition. What are the reasons for that? And now it is in government, will the NLD be able to control Ma Ba Tha, including Wirathu?

    The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee said it imposed the ban because Wirathu had “repeatedly” used hate speech against other religions to cause communal strife and hinder efforts to uphold the rule of law. It also said he had taken sides with political parties to inflame tensions. Wirathu has often used hate speech to refer to Muslims, including on social media. He has done it so often it is not unusual.

    The clearest evidence that Wirathu had hampered the rule of law was his response to the assassination of constitutional expert U Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the NLD. On social media and in interviews, Wirathu expressed thanks to those involved in the killing of Ko Ni. He said Ko Ni was like a mad dog and he was grateful to those who had killed him.

    Wirathu’s political bias is evident in his comments about the NLD. He has accused State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD of giving preferential treatment to Muslims and has called on followers to support the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Tatmadaw.

    At a recent speech at Kyonku village in Ayeyarwady Region’s Ngapudaw Township he compared Aung San Suu Kyi’s government unfavourably with that of former President U Thein Sein. In the speech in Thein Sein’s home village, he also said that Buddhist women were better off marrying drug addicts, alcoholics and even dogs than wedding Muslims.

    In an apparent reaction to the year-long ban on giving speeches, Wirathu staged a silent protest at an event in Ayeyarwady’s Einme Township on March 11, appearing on stage with masking tape across his mouth while a sound system played one of his sermons. The event was streamed live on Facebook. When this column was written, it was not clear whether the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee or the government would respond to his protest.

    There are many monks in Ma Ba Tha who sincerely believe that what they consider to be “race”, and Buddhism, must be protected. Some of these monks are involved in anti-Muslim activities that they say are necessary to protect race and religion, and for the same reason a few oppose the NLD and support the USDP. This was clear during the campaign for the 2015 election.

    In July last year, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee declared that Ma Ba Tha was not a lawful monks’ association, a decision supported by Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture U Aung Ko. The minister also called on the committee to take action against any Ma Ba Tha member who had engaged in hate speech.

    Following the committee’s announcement, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture asked sangha organisations to take down Ma Ba Tha signs. Despite the ministry’s request, Ma Ba Tha headquarters continues to operate and is still issuing statements.

    Because of the enormous sensitivity involved in Buddhist majority Myanmar, it is extremely difficult for the NLD government to control an organisation such as Ma Ba Tha. On one hand, most monks want to protect the Buddha Sasana (religion). On the other hand, senior Tatmadaw officers and retired generals are paying homage to Ma Ba Tha leaders.

    A few monks with extreme nationalist views are dreaming of a scenario in which anti-Muslim hate speech will incite massive sectarian conflict that will result in the Tatmadaw seizing power and ending the transition to democracy. Religious intolerance is a very dangerous problem and the only solution is to take effective action against extremists.

  4. একটি প্রতিবেদন, ‘৯৬৯’ তত্ত্ব এবং কিছু কথা
    http://opinion.bdnews24.com/bangla/archives/47453

    রোহিঙ্গা বা অবহেলিত, নির্যাতিত এক শ্রেণির মানুষের বিরুদ্ধে অবস্থান গ্রহণ করায় বার্মিজ ভিক্ষু আসিন ওয়ারাথুকে আমি ঘোর সাম্প্রদায়িক ও জাতিবিদ্বেষী বলতে পারি, কিন্তু সন্ত্রাসী বা জঙ্গি বলব কোন প্রমাণের ভিত্তিতে? পৃথিবীর কোনো কোনো স্থানে ওই বার্মিজ ভিক্ষু আসিন ওয়ারাথু সন্ত্রাসী কর্মকাণ্ড চালিয়েছেন এবং জঙ্গি হামলা করেছেন জনাব ফিরোজ মান্না বলতে পারেন কি?

    আমরা লক্ষ করছি যে, এক শ্রেণির মানুষ বুদ্ধ বিহার, বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষু, বৌদ্ধধর্মের চরিত্র হনন করার জন্য এবং বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষু মাত্রেই আসলে খারাপ, বৌদ্ধ বিহারেও সন্ত্রাসী ও জঙ্গি তৎপরতা আছে– এটা প্রতিষ্ঠা করার জন্য উঠেপড়ে লেগেছে। কেউ বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষু সেজে কিংবা কোনো ভিক্ষু এমন গর্হিত কাজ করে থাকলে তাকে টেনে বের করুন। তাকে জাতির সামনে হাজির করুন, তার বিচার করুন। সন্দেহের ভিত্তিতে ঢালাওভাবে সবার বিরুদ্ধে এভাবে বিষোদগার করতে পারেন না।

    বাংলাদেশি পাহাড়ি-বাঙালি কোনো বৌদ্ধ মিয়ানমারে বৈধ পন্থায় যাওয়া-আসা করা দোষের কিছু নয়। ১৯৭১ সালে পাকিস্তান সেনাবাহিনী বাংলাদেশের জনগণের উপর বর্বর অত্যাচার করেছে তাই বলে তো পাকিস্তানের সঙ্গে বাংলাদেশের যোগাযোগ চিরতরে বন্ধ হয়ে যায়নি? রোহিঙ্গা ইস্যুতে কিংবা অন্য কোনো কারণে মিয়ানমারের সঙ্গে তো বাংলাদেশের রাষ্ট্রীয় যোগাযোগ নিষিদ্ধ হয়নি! তাহলে এদেশের বৌদ্ধরা মিয়ানমারে গেলে সমস্যা কোথায়?

    বাংলাদেশের কোন বৌদ্ধ সন্ন্যাসী, কোন বৌদ্ধ যুবক মিয়ানমারে গিয়ে অস্ত্র প্রশিক্ষণ নিচ্ছে? তারা কারা? তাদের পাকড়াও করতে বাধা কোথায়? কিন্তু যে প্রতিবেদন করা হয়েছে তাতে বৌদ্ধ ভিক্ষু, বিহার এবং ভাবনাকেন্দ্র মানে সন্ত্রাসী, বাজে, জঙ্গি তৈরির কারখানা ভাবা ছাড়া আর কোনো কাজে আসবে কি?

    এই প্রতিবেদনের ভিত্তিতে বাংলাদেশের সব বৌদ্ধ বিহার ও ভাবনাকেন্দ্রগুলোতে জঙ্গি ও সন্ত্রাসীবিরোধী সাড়াঁশি অভিযান চালানো দরকার। যারা ভাবনাকেন্দ্র গড়ে তোলার নামে পাহাড়ে এত এত সরকারি জায়গা দখল করছে তাদের উপর স্থায়ী নিষেধাজ্ঞা আরোপ করা দরকার। প্রতিষ্ঠিত সব ভাবনাকেন্দ্র বন্ধ করে দেওয়া দরকার। উনি বোধহয় এটাই চান। তাতে আমার তরফে কোনো আপত্তি নেই।

  5. Is Rohingya persecution caused by business interests rather than religion?
    https://amp.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion

    In the last four years Myanmar’s Rohingya, a centuries-old Muslim minority group, have been subjected to sharply escalating persecution by the Myanmar army, and by a particular sector of extreme nationalist Buddhist monks.

    A brutal attack marking a new level of violence (pdf) against the Rohingya occurred in 2012 and led to the flight of thousands to other countries. More recently, military forces entered one of the rural areas occupied by the Rohingya. They destroyed at least 1,500 buildings and shot unarmed men, women and children dead. Earlier this week a video emerged showing villagers sitting on the ground with their arms over their heads, as soldiers appear to beat one of the men.

    The world’s coverage of these events has focused entirely on the religious/ethnic aspect, characterising them as religious persecution. Human Rights Watch described the anti-Rohingya violence as amounting to “crimes against humanity,” carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Malaysia’s foreign minister described the Myanmar government’s actions as ethnic cleansing and called on them to stop the practice, leading in turn to a strong response from Myanmar’s government. John McKissick, head of the UN refugee agency, said the Myanmar government was carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.

    But my research leads me to argue that religion and ethnicity might be only part of what explains this forced displacement.

    The past two decades have seen a massive worldwide rise of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture and water. In the case of Myanmar, the military have been grabbing vast stretches of land (pdf) from smallholders since the 1990s, without compensation, but with threats if they try to fight back. This land grabbing has continued across the decades but has expanded enormously in the last few years. At the time of the 2012 attacks, the land allocated to large projects had increased by 170% between 2010 and 2013. By 2012 the law governing land (pdf) was changed to favour large corporate acquisitions.

    We must ask whether the sharpened persecution of the Rohingya (and other minority groups) might be partly generated by military-economic interests, rather than by mostly religious/ethnic issues. Expelling Rohingya from their land might well be good for future business. In fact, quite recently the government allocated 1,268,077 hectares (3,100,000 acres) in the Rohingya’s area of Myanmar for corporate rural development; this is quite a jump compared to the first such formal allocation which was in 2012, for just 7,000 hectares (17,000 acres). To some extent the international focus on religion has overshadowed the vast land grabs that have affected millions, including the Rohingya.
    Who are the Rohingya?

    Rohingya are an old Muslim minority that has long been part of Myanmar, going back to the 15th century when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. Rohingya is a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s and that experts say provides the group with a collective, political identity.

    Over one-third of the Rohingya are concentrated in the western state of Rakhine – one of Myanmar’s least developed states, with plentiful land. The Rohingya are poor, with more than 78% of households living below the poverty line, according to World Bank estimates. Their poverty might further enable their evictions to make room for development projects.

    Co-existence was never exactly peaceful, but from the 1990s until 2012 there were no major killings (pdf). But in 2012 Arakanese Buddhists called for their persecution after three Muslim men were accused of raping an Arakanese woman. That year, Arakanese political parties, local monks’ associations, and civic groups publicly urged the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. A particular sect of Buddhists went so far as to re-interpret sections of Buddhist texts to urge people to kill Rohingya. The vast majority of Buddhists did not join in.

    After 2012 the Rohingya begin to leave Myanmar in large numbers: it had become clear that they were now an actively persecuted people. The 2012 violence against the Rohingya civilian population “resulted in approximately 200 deaths and over 140,000 displaced” according to the US state department. The UN high commissioner for refugees estimates that since 2012, 160,000 Rohingya left by sea to neighbouring countries – mostly to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. More than 120,000 Rohingya are still housed in over 40 internment camps in Myanmar according to the regional rights organisation Fortify Rights.
    But is it about religion?

    The treatment of the Rohingya is sometimes described as a crime against humanity. But we need to interrogate its sources. If we bring in some of the larger trends affecting modest rural communities, two major facts stand out. One is the far larger numbers of Buddhist smallholders who have also been expelled from their land in the last few years. And the other is the fact that large-scale timber extraction, mining, and water projects are replacing the expelled.

    This combination of conditions have until recently rarely been mentioned in the media, and are absent from the religion discussion. The focus of the global media, and to a large extent inside Myanmar, has been on religious hatred.

    There were high expectations that Aung San Suu Kyi party’s electoral victory in November 2015 would bring justice. But she has made a point of not addressing these developments in her public statements. Indeed as recently as May 2016, she requested that the US not use the word Rohingya because, according to one of her spokesmen, the term is not useful as part of the national reconciliation process.

    But the land grabs have been silently ignored. In fact, the military were already taking land from Buddhist smallholders and other groups in the 1990s. But in 2012 a change in the law escalated matters and (formally) opened the country to foreign investors. On 30 March 2012, the joint lower and upper houses of parliament approved the revision of two land laws: the Farmland Law and the Vacant Land Law. This amounted to a new Foreign Investment Law that allowed 100% foreign capital, and lease periods of up to 70 years. Compared to mining, the agriculture sector still has some restrictions on foreign investment in that the government promotes joint ventures with local entrepreneurs. However, foreign firms often use local companies as proxies (pdf) for investments.

    The 1963 Peasant Law was also annulled in 2012, this piece of statute, which protected smallholders and the “tiller’s rights to the land”, had been in place since the country’s socialist era.

    Against this background, the escalating displacement of millions of smallholders (mostly Buddhists) from the land was a major change as to who was to manage the land. Smallholders became refugees of a new economic ordering. Myanmar is not unique in this. Similar brutal expulsions of smallholders have been happening across the world as large corporations take over because they “establish” that the smallholders have no contracts showing the land is theirs, no matter how long they and their ancestors worked that land. What is different in Myanmar is the almost absolute control the military have long had over much of the country’s land, and hence their key role in the expulsion of smallholders (pdf).

    Today there are whole new economies – mining, timber, geothermal projects – where before there were smallholders. Economic development may require this: but it should also work for the millions of displaced and never compensated smallholders. Foreign direct investment is now concentrated in extractive sectors and power generation. Not much of the new investment has gone to sectors such as manufacturing that can generate a strong working class and a modest middle class. For example, Myanmar’s Yadana pipeline project, “required investment of over $1bn (£0.8bn), yet employs only 800 workers”.

    Furthermore, the 2012 law empowered foreign investors. It offered government loans – but no help for the smallholders who lost their land. Land properties can range from 2,000 hectares up to 20,000 hectares (5,000 acres to 50,000 acres) for an initial period of 30 years. The extent of land grabs is such that Myanmar is losing more than a million acres of forest a year (pdf).

    Many, perhaps most, of the contracts signed for major land deals have their own conditions and effects. For instance, regional military commanders and non-state armed groups have de facto control over most land development in northern Myanmar.
    Two parallel worlds

    The Myanmar of brutal religious persecutions that has led to huge worldwide concern is only getting worse. But then there is the Myanmar of evictions of smallholders to make room for massive land grabs.

    Myanmar has become a last Asian frontier for our current modes of development – plantation agriculture, mining, and water extraction. Its location makes it even more strategic. Besides being the largest country of south-east Asia, Myanmar is between the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, both hungry for natural resources.

    Since that first set of major foreign investors entered the country under the new legal regime, demand for land has become a major factor in conflict. Foreign firms have moved in, land grabs have risen, smallholders keep losing ground. Farmers have become poorer or lost their land. But the land market is booming.

    Seen from this angle, persecution of the Rohingya has at least two functions, even if unplanned. Expelling them from their land is a way of freeing up land and water. Burning their homes makes this irreversible: the Rohingya are forced to flee and leave their lands behind. Secondly, a focus on religious difference mobilises passions around religion, rather than aiming, let’s say, at creating pressure on the government to stop evictions of all smallholders, no matter their religion.

    Against the background of millions of expelled smallholders, it is remarkable how much religion has captured the attention of observers and commentators. In the meantime, a third of Myanmar’s vast forests are gone, and the government has allocated million of hectares, including a significant allotment in Rakhine state, for further development.

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