YANGON, Myanmar — As an estimated 140,000 Rohingya Muslims sat captive in squalid refugee camps in Rakhine State and across the border in Thailand and Bangladesh, a group of red-robed Buddhist leaders gathered here in Yangon last week, dismissing what human rights groups have called a genocide as “illusions created by the Arab media.”
“I really take pity on [my critics],” said the Buddhist monk U Wirathu, founder of Myanmar’s 969 movement, accused of mobilizing a campaign of murder, arson and displacement against Muslims in Rakhine and across the country. “They are under the influence of media backed by the Arab world. Europeans and Americans are educated people, but sometimes certain illusions are created by the Arab media.”
Myo Win, who in 2007 founded an organization in Yangon to promote peace between Buddhist and Muslims, called 969 a “countrywide racist movement” with roots in the Burmese government’s rising Buddhist nationalism and three-tiered citizenship laws. Though crimes against humanity committed against Rohingya are overt examples, ethnic and religious biases strongly shape all facets of life here.
“Wirathu is one of the actors of that hate speech movement,” Myo Win said. “But the responsibility falls on the government authority. Where is our constitution? Where is our rule of law? Where is the law enforcement? Where is the responsibility of Buddhists?”
The answers to some of these questions, said long-blacklisted Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, may exist in the fact that Myanmar is experiencing “the emergence of a new nationalism.”
“Suddenly many people are proud about being Burmese,” he said. “Five years ago this country was an international outcast, a pariah of the world...The new nationalists, they put up a picture of the three warrior kings, and they've got the new army, not the old ragtag army that had to fight in the army against ethnics and communist rebels, but the modern army, the tanks, jet fighters, frigates, and then the third symbol is Buddhism. So the interpretation of this that in order to be Burmese you have to be Buddhist.”
But Myo Win, though born in Yangon, is Muslim. His Smile Education and Development Foundation operates from within a spartan low-rise in downtown Yangon, not far from a mosque, a Hindu temple and St. Mary's Cathedral — the largest Catholic church in the country. The organization offers English classes, interfaith educational programs and women’s empowerment courses among other initiatives.
"My school was majority Buddhist and three or four Muslims out of thousands of students,” said Myo Win, who became an imam after training in Pakistan. “I faced some discriminations since I was young. People always joking, looking down on the color of my skin. I realized why there was that kind of discrimination. Education is the most important thing."
Myo Win cited Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, a stratified system that favors those of an “indigenous race” as part of an apartheid-like structure felt acutely by ethnic and religious minorities like the Rohingya, who are not recognized as one of the country’s official ethnic groups and therefore have no path to citizenship and the benefits that go with it.
“There has been violence and discrimination against Muslims since independence,” he said. “And not only the Muslims, but the non-Buddhist people.”
Myo Win said he saw a nationwide spike in anti-Muslim sentiment in 1997, when a mob of more than 1,000 Buddhist monks rampaged against Muslim homes and holy sites in Mandalay. Myo Win and a group of his colleagues sent formal letters of concern to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and to the Sangha Association, the Buddhist seat of power in Myanmar.
"We noticed it very early and said to the government, ‘Please, do something. If you don't stop it, it will be a bigger problem soon.’” he said. “But they neglected, they didn't take care of it at all."
Now, Myo Win says, a civil rights movement is underway among some progressive Buddhists and Muslims that rejects the new Buddhist nationalism.
As Burmese journalist Swe Win wrote in the New York Times in April, “The general public in Myanmar, which is largely Buddhist (about 90 percent) and ethnic Bamar (over 65 percent), would like to believe that the Buddhist monks who allegedly participated in these brutal incidents aren’t real monks. That’s easier than contemplating the painful reality that the venerated Buddhist order, the Sangha, has become largely corrupt.”
Last year Rakhine State erupted into brutal ethnic and religious violence that killed more than 160 people, and mobs have assembled in locations across the country at various times so far in 2013, with victims predominantly Muslim.
"So many Muslim mosques and Muslim houses have been burned down in the middle of the night by so-called Buddhist men,” Myo Win said. “And the people have not been able to come back up to this day."
The monk Wirathu and his supporters are now pushing a new law that would impose strict limits on Buddhists’ ability to marry outside of their own faith. And in Rakhine, the western coastal state that borders Bangladesh, Rohingya are limited to two children per couple and must undergo an extensive application process to marry.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Burmese government to end the genocide in Rakhine and to repeal the two-child law there. Meanwhile opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she believes the 1982 Citizenship Law should be reviewed.
Many members of parliament have objected to amending the law, reported Eleven Myanmar, and it is unlikely to come up for debate during the current session.
"This law was to protect State’s security and stability and ethnic affairs. The '82 law does not need to be amended,” said parliament member Ba Shein of the Rakhine National Development Party. “The amendment to the law is aimed at changing illegal immigrants into legal ones. It is unnatural.”
One of Myanmar’s government-run newspapers, “The New Light of Myanmar”, ran a long response to Eleven Myanmar on Wednesday in support of the law under a banner reading, “The Earth cannot swallow a race to extinction, but another race can.”