BANGKOK – Turning them from being champions of democracy and freedom, Burma generals are nurturing Burma’s Buddhist chauvinism, putting monks at the lead of its war on the world’s most prosecuted Rohnigya minority.
“These generals are considered monk killers," Maung Zarni, a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics, told Voice Of America on Friday, September 7.
"And, you know, the world [has] seen images of like troops shooting Buddhist monks in the Saffron Revolution.”
Earlier this week, thousands of Buddhist monks have marched across Burma to demand the expulsion of Bengali-ethnic Muslims, known as Rohingyas, from the country.
The monks were supporting a suggestion by President Thein Sein that the Muslim minority, numbering close to a million, should be segregated and deported.
The protests were the largest since the 2007 monk uprising against military rule.
While the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which takes its name from the color of monks’ robes, called for love and democracy, this week’s protests were inciting hatred against the world’s most oppressed minorities, the Rohingya.
Sectarian tensions are so high they overshadowed the fact that President Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007 when the military government violently cracked down on Buddhist monks.
“Now, they have successfully refashioned themselves as defenders of Buddhist faith, protectors of Buddhist communities in western Burma,” Zarni added.
“And, it’s actually extremely brilliant, if dangerous, you know, political calculation.”
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee their homes after ethnic violence rocked the western state of Rakhine in July after the killing of ten Muslims in an attack by Buddhist vigilantes on their bus.
The attack came following the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman, for which three Rohingyas were sentenced to death.
Human rights groups have accused Burmese police and troops of disproportionate use of force and arrests of Rohingyas in the wake of the riots.
Human Rights Watch has accused Burmese security forces of targeting Rohingya Muslims with killing, rape and arrest following the unrest.
Hundreds of Rohingya men and boys have been rounded up and remain incommunicado in the western region of the country, the group said.
Imposing a Buddhist identity on Burma, the country generals were inciting racist nationalism against other minorities.
“In this particular instance it seems to be a case where there is a lot of debate about what constitutes Burmese identity,” said Juliane Schober, a scholar studying Burma’s Buddhist traditions at Arizona State University.
“And, the saying, you know, ‘to be Burmese is to be Buddhist’ is one that was first articulated in the early 1910s when the initial struggles for independence became and it was a way of asserting Burmese identity vis-à-vis British colonial rule,” said Schober
Appointing as the country’s first prime minister after independence, devout Buddhist U Nu steered a bill through parliament that made Buddhism Burma’s state religion in 1961.
Burma is about 90 percent Buddhist and majority ethnically Burman, but the remaining people are a diverse group of over 100 ethnic and religious minorities.
Treating Buddhism as the state de facto religion, the Buddhist Burman majority was singled out as the trustworthy pillar of national identity.
“The significance of that is those monks were primarily loyal to military rule and Burma army soldiers exacted forced labor from Chin Christians to build Pagodas and monasteries for those monks,” Rachel Fleming, Advocacy Director for the Chin Human Rights Organization, said.
Aung Thu Nyein with the Vahu Development Institute agrees, confirming that authorities have long sought to impose the Burman majority views on the population by keeping minorities out of power.
“They don’t have any written laws and regulations, but practically, in the military if you are a Christian or if you are a Muslim you won’t be promoted up to major ranks. You won’t be a senior leader in the military,” he said.
Analysts and rights activists worry Burma is fostering a xenophobia that, if left unchecked, could get out of control.
“And that’s the concern that we see today in Burma,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Asia with Human Rights Watch, said.
“If this continues, if the Burmese monkhood continues to come out and press against the Rohingya in this way, will we be on the road to a kind of Sri Lanka situation with the Rohingya where you have Buddhists across Burma raising their hands against Rohingya.”
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