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Islamophobia on the rise in Myanmar
03:20 - Source: CNN
Yangon, Myanmar CNN  — 

In the warren of streets surrounding Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s oldest and holiest Buddhist sites, lie a church, a Hindu temple, and a handful of mosques, one of which dates back more than 100 years.

Their followers rub shoulders in the narrow, numbered alleys that slice up Yangon, which to an outsider feels like a multi-cultural Asian city on the make after decades sealed off under military rule.

But Yangon’s downtown diversity masks a more unsettling reality for the city’s Muslims – a rising tide of Islamophobia among the country’s Buddhist majority.

A Buddhist monk  crosses a street intersection fronting Sule pagoda, left, and the Bengali Sunni Jameh mosque right, in Yangon.

Myanmar stands accused of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, from where more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since August. The country’s military denies involvement in any atrocities and blames the bloodshed on Rohingya militants that attacked border posts.

Than Aung, a lawyer and a regular preacher at Yangon’s 59th Street mosque, blames the divisions in Rakhine State on poverty and lack of job opportunities, saying he feels sorry for both the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists. However, he says the crisis has made life difficult for non-Rohingya Muslims.

“The hate speech overwhelmed the minds of most of the people in Myanmar, if you look at these people, it’s all because of fear, and because of this fear, they are afraid of us and we are afraid of them,” he says.

Yangon hasn’t been immune from the religious strife. In April, two Islamic schools were closed in Yangon’s Thaketa township at the behest of angry mobs, according to Human Rights Watch.

And in January, Ko Ni, a high-profile Muslim lawyer and government adviser, was killed by a gun-wielding assassin outside Yangon’s international airport while he held his grandson in his arms.

A woman wearing a veil buys bananas in central Yangon on September, 21, 2017.

Harassment, no go zones

There’s little public sympathy in Myanmar for the Rohingya.

For decades, authorities labeled them illegal immigrants and denied them citizenship. Newspapers largely carry the government’s account of the latest crisis, casting it in terms of the military responding to attacks by terrorists. There are few references to the accusations of ethnic cleansing or alleged massacres.

And the Rohingya crisis has raised fears among other Muslims in Myanmar, even though they enjoy full citizenship rights.

Sann Aung, the chairman of the Society of Enlightening Quranic Knowledge, says he and his family have been harassed, especially when they travel outside Yangon.

“Security forces check me, not the others, ask me where I’m from, where I’m going, what I’m doing. It’s embarrassing.”

Khin Maung, an imam at 59th Street Mosque, says he doesn’t fear for his own family but does worry about Muslim families living outside relatively cosmopolitan Yangon.

Two women wearing veils walk along a street in central Yangon with a Hindu temple in the background on September 21, 2017.

“Village people get overwhelmed by hate speech so the Muslim people in the rural areas, I worry for them. Buddhist people do not understand about Muslims.”

A recent Burma Human Rights Network report documented at least 21 villages erecting signs warning Muslims not to enter.

Since 1962, when the military took power in a coup, no new mosques have been opened – a bone of contention for many Muslims as cities like Yangon expand, says Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar and a commissioner on the government’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

Many Muslims have moved to new suburbs and satellite cities but once there find there’s no place for them to worship. They’ve resorted to worshiping and teaching their children at home but Aye Lwin says this has attracted the attention of authorities after protests.

“Muslims are a growing population. They need to practice and learn about their religion. I’m not talking about proselytizing, they are teaching their own children how to pray and how to read the Quran and how to practice Islam in their daily life,” he says.

Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar and a commissioner on the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, pictured on September 20, 2017.


Aye Lwin blames the toxic climate on Buddhist nationalists, who have whipped up tensions. Muslims only make up around 5% of the population but some Buddhist monks preach they pose an existential threat to the country.

“People think it’s a clash between two major religions. No, religion has been hijacked by people with a hidden agenda to use it as a political tool,” he says.

Thaw Parka, who leads around 100 monks at ZayTaWon DammarYone Monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, acts as a spokesman for Ma Ba Tha, a Buddhist nationalist group that has been at the forefront of anti-Rohingya protests, believes extremist Islam is putting Buddhism at risk.

“We are worried that they will explode our ethnic heritage, cultural buildings, religious monuments and our brethren, when they carry out suicide bombings,” he told CNN.

Mogul Shiah Masjid mosque in central Yangon dates back to 1854

Pope Francis, who visits Myanmar this week and has spoken out in support of the Rohingya, has been advised by his own cardinal to refrain from using the word Rohingya, a politically charged term, during his trip.

His cardinal in Myanmar, Charles Bo, says Islamophobia is widespread: “The majority would have an aversion for Muslims in general and particularly those Muslims in Rakhine State.”

However, he says there have been no negative remarks about the Pope’s trip, even from extremist Buddhist monks, who “are in favor of receiving” him, but “he has to be very careful about what terms he will use.”

The Pope meets Tuesday with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been roundly criticized internationally for not doing more to halt the violence against the Rohingya.

However, Muslim leaders like Aye Lwin defend how she has handled the crisis, stressing the limits of the power-sharing agreement she has with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s powerful military.

“I’ll be very blunt, if she comes out and defends the Muslims it would be political suicide for her,” he says.

Yin Nwe Khaing, the daughter of the murdered lawyer Ko Ni, pictured in September.

Extreme nationalism

In 2015, there was hope that the election of Suu Kyi after decades of military rule would calm religious tensions. The murdered Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni, was one of her top legal advisers and one of the country’s highest profile Muslims. He was also a campaigner for Rohingya rights to citizenship.

Her government labeled his killing an act of terrorism, saying personal antagonism and “extreme nationalism” were behind the assassination. A trial of several suspects is underway and an Interpol red notice has been issued for the arrest of Aung Win Khaing, who served in the military until 2014.

Mourners carry the coffin of Ko Ni, prominent Muslim lawyer who was shot dead on January 29, at the Muslim cemetery in Yangon on January 30, 2017.

“When I turned around and look, my father was on the ground so I run and help him but there was no sign of life,” says Yin Nwe Khaing, the daughter of the murdered lawyer who was at the airport when he was shot.

She said she didn’t know much about her father’s work but had warned him to be more careful.

“My father was a very principled man. He’d never discuss his professional life. Others knew much more than us, ” she said, while playing with her son at her Yangon home.

“We told him please take care…and he just smiled. He said ‘you only have one life.’”