YANGON – Facing a new episode of sectarian violence, the Muslim minority in Burma is becoming a scapegoat of the country’s transition of oppressive military rule to democracy.
“All Muslims living in Burma are worried about this. What will happen to our faith? How can we live in this Buddhist society?” Nyunt Maung Shein, president of the country's Islamic Religious Affairs Council, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Sunday, April 14.“Why are we so miserable that our men and women, children, students are brutally killed?
“Muslims are scapegoats in this transition period from the brutal junta.”
More than 42 people were killed and several mosques burnt in a week of sectarian violence in the central city of Meiktila earlier this month.
The violence started by an argument between a Buddhist couple and gold shop owners and later spread to several towns in central Burma.
Monks were blamed for inciting hatred against Muslims by preaching a so-called “969 movement” which represents a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism that urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim-run shops and services.
The violence has raised doubts on the success of Burma’s transition from 49 years of oppressive military rule that ended in March 2011.
Burma’s Muslims -- largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population.
Muslims entered Burma en masse for the first time as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.
But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country, widely considered as foreigners.
“There have been very few conversions” to Islam in Burma, said Alexandra de Marsan, an anthropologist with the Paris-based National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations.
“Most Muslims are descendants of foreigners from India or other countries.”
The latest bout of violence is seen as reflecting a worrying surge of Islamophobia in the southeast Asian country.
“We're oppressed by fear, sorrow and doubt,” said Kyaw Nyein, legal consultant and senior member of Jamiat-Uloma-El Islam, an organization of religious scholars.
“Even if the government is willing to cure the disease, it is going to take decades.”
He opines that the country's transition from junta rule is proving a test for all of society, including the security forces.
“Previously, there was one military command that would stop any event,” he said.
“Now it's a civil administration. There are so many steps that need to be taken before (there is) action.”
Rights groups have accused the Burmese police of turning a blind eye to attacks against Muslims.
Though some cities remained relatively calm during attacks as Yangon, Muslims are still living in fear after a fire killed 13 teenagers at a Muslim school in early April.
“Everyone is scared, even me,” said Kyaw Nyein.“Every night there are rumors. We are under pressure.”
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