Burma’s Time Bomb

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 18 July 2014

Religious prejudice continues to endanger Burma. Recently, deadly clashes of Muslim and Buddhist mobs in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, showed once again just how explosive the tensions between both faiths have become.

In Burma, which was ruled by manipulative military regimes for about five decades, people have a tendency to suspect the government of using religious prejudice as a tool to divert anti-government activities. In the past, religious clashes would often break out when pro-democracy movements were emerging. As an example, take the 1988 uprising against Gen. Ne Win’s regime. Soon after anti-government protests began in cities across the country, religious clashes erupted in towns such as Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, and Prome, central Burma.

But those flames of religious unrest were extinguished immediately, and although many people believed the government had truly instigated the problem, we lacked evidence to prove our suspicions. Describing the unrest as state sponsored was a dangerous accusation.

Three years into the term of reformist President Thein Sein, the clashes in Mandalay this month left at least two people dead and 14 others injured. Religious riots have broken out across the country several times in recent years, but this was the first time it has reached such a major city.

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a Burmese-language book with a shocking title: “If You Marry a Man of Another Evil Race and Religion.” The book is believed to have been written by a Buddhist monk under the pen name Pho Pa Nyaw, and it was published with permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry in January 2010, back when no book could be printed and distributed without government approval. It includes 11 stories about Buddhist women who were sexually abused, raped or forced to marry members of another “evil” religion.”

After reading some of the stories, I am convinced that the book was intended to plant seeds of hatred against Islam among the country’s Buddhist majority, although the author never specifically referred to Muslims. One story was about a Buddhist woman named Su Su Lat. She married a man of another faith, and her husband and his family prohibited her from worshipping the Buddha. In 2000, when they discovered that she was continuing to practice Buddhism, they beat her to death. The entire family was later arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Similar outcomes were described in the other stories, with the Buddhists always referred to as victims.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of
the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

This book seems to be based solely upon hearsay, lacking detailed references to places, names or specific incidents. But even if the stories are true, I wonder why the Religious Affairs Ministry approved their publication. The writing is racist and provocative, and assuming that government officials actually read it themselves, they must have known it would stir up tension.

I do not know how many similar books were published with approval from the previous government. But in 2012, just two years after this one was published, riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State, leaving hundreds dead and about 140,000 people homeless. Most of the displaced people were Muslims who continue to live in squalid shelters.

Since then, an anti-Muslim movement known as 969 has grown elsewhere in the country, led by nationalist monks such as U Wirathu. Once again, roots of this movement can be found in writing. In 1997, a book titled “969” appeared in Moulmein and some other cities, written under the name of U Kyaw Lwin. It was a manifesto, urging Buddhists to display the numbers 969 on their homes, businesses and vehicles.

At the time of the book’s publication, there was no visible impact in public. But last year, as anti-Muslim riots spread to other cities around the country, we saw 969 stickers and emblems displayed prominently just where U Kyaw Lwin suggested, on the walls and windows of homes, businesses and vehicles.

I wonder whether the book my friend sent me recently contributed to our country’s current religious tensions. But the real question is, why did the government give its blessing? Is it state policy to encourage religious tension?

As my friend told me, “Religion is used as a time bomb here, all the time.”