Conflict between Buddhists and Muslims has been on an uptick since tensions between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya erupted in violence in the capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine State, Sittwe, in May 2012. Violence broke out in other areas of Rakhine in October that year, this time targeting Muslims in general, not just the Rohingya. Together, these clashes left almost 200 people dead and around 140,000 displaced. By 2013, violence spread to other parts of Myanmar. Fresh fighting hit Rakhine at the end of September 2013 ahead of Myanmar President Thein Sein's visit the following month. This year, the United Nations reported that clashes occurred in a village in the southern Maungdaw township in Rakhine on 9 and 13 January. The Myanmar government has rejected the UN account of the incidents and has launched an independent investigation.
Religious conflict threatens not only Myanmar, it could reverberate beyond its borders. Southeast Asia, a religiously diverse region, is generally known for its tolerance. However, in response to attacks on Muslim communities in Myanmar, Myanmar Buddhists were targeted in Muslim majority Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and a Buddhist centre in Jakarta was bombed. The Myanmar embassy in Indonesia was allegedly also the subject of a foiled bomb plot. Such incidents, even if averted, create a climate of distrust and fear that could destabilise religious relations in the region.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is not new to Myanmar. It has its roots in colonial policy, which brought many Indians to Myanmar to work in commerce, money lending or as low-skilled labour. Many of these Indians were Muslims. Anti-Indian rioting took place in 1930, to protest the sacking of Myanmar workers after Indian dockworkers were reinstated following a strike. Rioting occurred again in 1938 in response to perceived insults to Buddhism in a book authored by an Indian Muslim.
Today, anti-Muslim sentiment remains widespread. There is a notable lack of support for Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, who many Buddhists and Christians consider illegal Bengali immigrants, since they do not qualify as citizens under the onerous 1982 Citizenship Law. This law requires applicants who are not members of one of the 135 officially recognised "national" ethnic groups and who did not apply for citizenship under an earlier citizenship act to show pre-1948 proof of settlement in order to apply for naturalised citizenship—an onerous requirement for the poor and marginalised Rohingya. Given that the Rohingya issue also involves issues of citizenship, it is particularly intractable. But it feeds into broader anti-Muslim sentiment as seen in the rapid spread of violence from Sittwe, Rakhine to elsewhere.
The reasons for anti-Muslim sentiment are complex, but can largely be summed up in the following perceptions: too many, too rich, and too different. The first relates to a fear that Muslims in Myanmar are multiplying and if the country is not careful it might go the way of countries like India and Indonesia that have lost their Buddhist heritage. Many Arakanese in Rakhine feel caught between what they see as the simultaneous "Islamisation" and "Burmanisation" of their state.
The second factor refers to the supposed wealth of Muslims who use this to buy up Burmese land and to attract and marry Burmese women (who are then forced to convert to Islam and bring up Muslim children). Even the impecunious Rohingya are said to be buying nice houses, guns and rockets, as well as building mosques. Resentment is heightened by rumours that Muslim wealth has been ill gotten, through bribing members of the previous regime.
At the US–ASEAN Business Council in July 2013, Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, a monk from the 969 Movement, offered a third reason for strained relations with Muslims in contrast to historically better relations with Christians and Hindus: "differences in beliefs and tradition." Given that this could also have been said about Christianity or Hinduism, his comment highlights how differences take on heightened salience when a group is regarded as alien and threatening. Differences per se do not cause conflict, identities and perceptions do.
At a time when Myanmar is going through a historic transition with no clear winners and losers, the sentiment that the Muslim outsider is encroaching on the land of the golden pagodas helps to account for the rise of "Buddhist nationalism," a term referencing the equation of being Burmese with being Buddhist. Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar takes its most obvious form in the 969 Movement. While detractors maintain that the movement uses religion as a guise for xenophobic sentiment, supporters say it helps to defend Buddhism and nation.
Some say that elements within the government are instigating violence: instability can then be used as a pretext for reverting to authoritarian rule if the opposition wins the 2015 national elections. There is no evidence of this. What is clear, however, is that even if true, elite instigation feeds off pre-existing anti-Muslim sentiment, which extends across party lines and class status.
The Myanmar government leadership must as an urgent priority reduce negative perceptions of non-Burman/Buddhist groups, while in the longer-run foster widespread buy-in to the idea of a Myanmar nation that has an unequivocal place for its minority communities, including the Rohingya.
One way of doing this is to further encourage dialogue between community leaders. People in Myanmar are said to pay great heed to the teachings of their religious leaders. Chances of resolving religious tensions improve if religious leaders are united in their messages of peace.
However, Buddhism and Islam (similarly to some Protestant groups) are relatively non-hierarchical in the sense that there is no overarching spiritual authority that determines what is acceptable: this is largely left to the head abbot or imam in a temple or mosque. Inter-faith dialogue is likely to be self-selecting, with mainly moderates attending. In order to amplify the moderate voice and delegitimise the views of extremists, the government can seek to encourage moderate religious associations that can eventually be said, at least to some degree, to represent their respective communities. These can be modelled along the lines of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (a statutory body), and the National Council of Churches, which have played an important role in keeping extremist elements in Singapore in check.
The Myanmar government could work with the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a group of monks responsible for regulating Myanmar's Buddhist clergy, to send strong messages against violence and the need for inter-faith respect. The committee's prohibition in September against the creation of formal organisations based around the 969 Movement was a step in the right direction. Although the committee was formed under the former military regime, it can rehabilitate its image by carefully cultivating the trust of the Buddhist community it serves.
The country's top political leaders should consistently make statements condemning violence, and importantly back these up with action. Passing laws to criminalise incitement of religious hatred or violence will convey the message that hate speech and violence will not be tolerated. It will also underscore the importance of religious harmony to Myanmar's future. Strong and decisive action against extremist elements of any community must be taken in an entirely even-handed way.
But officials should go further to convey a positive sense of the inherent worth of minority faiths and their followers. Thus far, Myanmar's leaders, such as President Thein Sein, have tended to shelter behind legalistic notions like the constitution "fully guarantee[ing] freedom of religion as the fundamental right of citizens." Similarly, leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have called for adherence to the "rule of law." However, many Rohingya lack citizenship and these statements, while important, treat the symptoms rather than the cause of ethnic hatred.
Given real fears from the Buddhist community that their religion and way of life are under threat, the government should consider how to address these without impinging on minorities. Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the majority's fears on the basis that Muslims only constitute about four percent of Myanmar's total population, this misses an important key to understanding the violence and therefore to managing and resolving conflict. Violence cannot be condoned, but Buddhist nationalism must be understood from the vantage point of a community that, along with the minorities, suffered tremendously under previous regimes and is now anxious about its future as the country undertakes major reforms.
Finally, the government should incentivise inter-ethnic activities, particularly those initiated by the grassroots. In the longer-run, tools such as sensitively designed mixed housing and an appropriately crafted national curriculum can help promote greater inter-ethnic interaction and appreciation, as well as a more inclusive national identity.