Anti-Rohingya and Anti-Muslim Sentiments in Myanmar: Mutually Reinforcing?

24 Sep, 2014    ·   4671

Aparupa Bhattacherjee highlights five causes leading to violence against the Rohingyas

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer
Is there a cause and effect between the anti-Muslim sentiments and anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar? Is the latter an expression of the former?

The violence against the Rohingyas appears to be a part of larger Islamophobia within Myanmar. The religious identity of the Rohingyas seems to play a larger role than their ethnic background, triggering violence from a section within Myanmar.

Islamophobia and Anti-Rohingya Riots: Five Causes
The strife between the Rohingya’s and the Rakhines is embedded in Myanmar’s history. The communal riots in the 1990s and later in 2001 and 2003 are the fallouts of this divide, though the June 2012 riot between the two communities attracted international attention. Until then, the existing religious tension was restricted only to some parts of the Rakhine state. Since 2012, there has been a rapid spread of the anti-Muslim sentiments to the rest of Myanmar which has also further escalated the existing tension between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas.  

Several reasons triggered the scepticism against the Muslims since 2012. First, the release of the radical Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu and formation of the 969 movement under him provided an organised platform for promoting Islamophobia. Launched in 2012, the movement propagates that the Muslims (who are recorded to be four percent of the total population according to the 1983 census in Myanmar) eventually would become the majority and the largest group within Myanmar.  The members of 969 movement act as prime instigators of the anti-Muslim movement in all over Myanmar. 

Second, the withdrawal of the media censorship in 2011 by the newly formed quasi-civilian government has helped in disseminating hatred.  Uncensored media has opened the avenues of use and abuse of the social media, propagating anti Rohingya, anti Muslim speeches and messages.  The recent riot in July 2014 in Mandalay highlights the misuse of the media. A fabricated story in social media of molestation of a Buddhist girl by her Muslim employer triggered the whole violence. 

Third, the 9/11 attack in the US, had alarmed a section within Myanmar which fear being targeted by the Islamic terrorists. The Rohingya Patriotic Front (a militant group, renamed as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) in the 1990s) and its union with Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) to evolve as the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) further exacerbated this fear.  The secessionist demands by these militant groups have only strengthened the fear and distrust among a section of Buddhist Myanmarese against the Muslims which was flared by the radical groups such as 969 movement. 

Fourth, the vulnerability of the Rohingya’s made them an easy target. The Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship rights by the 1982 Constitution, and thus perceived as an outsider in the country. They are referred as ‘Bengalis’ from Bangladesh, and the growth of the militants amongst them, have created an image of the whole community as a bunch of reprobate. Although the Rohingyas are a minority in the Rakhine state but their population is substantial in number (one billion approximately out of the total three billion); this has supported the notion of Muslim takeover. Additionally certain villages were recognised as the Rohingya ghettos, made them easily accessible for the perpetrators. This could be substantiated by the fact that the Rohingyas living in other district in a more mixed community setup were never attacked. 

Fifth, the spread of violence to other states also indicates the anti-Rohingya hostilities are effect of the cause of Islamophobia in Myanmar. Although the June and October 2012 riots were restricted in the Rakhine state, several riots also took place across Myanmar, including the two big cities of Yangon and Mandalay. The February 2013 riot in Yangon, took place in Thaketa township comprising Muslims population of mix ethnic groups and insignificant number of Rohingyas.  According to the record, the number of people murdered, raped and displaced in both the June and October 2012 riots apart from the Rohingyas also includes other Muslims such as Kaman and Barmar Muslims too. Thus elaborating attacks in most of these riots lead by the group of Buddhists radicals were inflicted upon the Muslims irrespective of their ethnicity.  

The anti- Rohingya violence should not be treated separate from the problem of the rapid growth of anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar. Although the Rohingyas have faced the brunt of the growth of the anti-Muslim violence, the repercussion of the growth has impacted all Muslims in Myanmar irrespective of their ethnicity.  This implies that the solution to both the cause and its effect have to be addressed together, as one may again lead to other.