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Myanmar’s Democracy Transition Marred by Anti-Muslim Rhetoric and Violence

June 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Southeast Asian country of Myanmar has taken major steps to turn from a military dictatorship to a fledgling democracy. But that transition has also seen the rise of harrowing, deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports from Myanmar.
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GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar.

In recent years, the country has taken steps to turn itself from a military dictatorship into a fledgling democracy. That included the release of human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Last month — just last month, Myanmar’s president became the first leader from his country to visit the White House in 47 years. But the transforming nation has been marred by a surge in violence against one of its religious minorities.

NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

KIRA KAY: Across the rice fields of central Myanmar, you can hear the noise of hammers and saws, the rebuilding of an entire community.

CHO CHO, Myanmar: I was born and raised in this village. I got married here. We have an attachment to this place. We cannot give it up.

KIRA KAY: This Muslim enclave of farmers and cattle dealers sits on the outskirts of Okkan town, where, on April 30, another flare-up of increasingly frequent religious violence broke out.

It started here in town, when a Muslim woman bumped into a young Buddhist monk in the crowded marketplace, causing an argument. Within hours, angry Buddhists were attacking their Muslim neighbors and a mob marched on the small enclave.

Village Chief Tin Win says 64 houses burned to the ground as residents watched from the bushes. The centerpiece of the enclave, its mosque, was badly damaged.

TIN WIN, Village Chief: I didn’t think this could happen. We had lived together peacefully. Muslims always participated in the activities of the Buddhist community.

KIRA KAY: Myanmar is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, known for its shining temples. Monks are revered here and were a face of the struggle for democracy and human rights during decades of autocratic rule. Though only about five percent of Myanmar’s population, Muslims occupy a prominent place in the country’s economic sphere, sometimes fostering resentment.

But the military leadership kept a lid on religious tensions, says Islamic leader Wunna Shwe.

WUNNA SHWE, Islamic Religious Affairs Council: The history of anti-Muslim feelings is long, but it was always discreet. Now it has erupted because of the transition to democracy.

KIRA KAY: In the last two years, Myanmar has undergone a profound transition, as the reformist government has increased freedoms. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament after decades of house arrest, and there is a freer flow of information.

WUNNA SHWE: These new freedoms have been exploited by a group of people who want to create discord between the different religions. These individuals use hate speech and provoke tensions around the country. Meanwhile, the authorities have failed to enforce law and order.

KIRA KAY: The surprising agents of a new anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist nationalism are a handful of prominent monks, like Wirathu.

WIRATHU, Buddhist Monk: We must prevent our country from becoming an Islamic state.

KIRA KAY: Wirathu was arrested in 2003 for inciting religious conflict, but was released in a 2012 amnesty. Now he has become the public face of a movement called 969. The numbers refer to various attributes of Buddha and the monkdom, and its brightly colored stickers have flowered across Myanmar in recent months. 969 calls for a boycott of Muslims, both economic and social.

WIRATHU: Muslim men marry Buddhist girls, but Muslim girls are taught not to marry anyone of a different religion. Muslims never sell their land or property to Buddhists and instead buy off Buddhists’ houses. In this way, they are expanding their control, and are dominating the economy of our major cities.

KIRA KAY: 969′s growth was fueled by events in Rakhine state, where, last June, fighting broke out between Buddhists and the Muslim ethnic group the Rohingya over the Muslim rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

In October came an organized effort to eradicate the Muslims, says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Their investigation found that local Buddhist leaders incited the attacks.

PHIL ROBERTSON, Human Rights Watch: There was, for instance, a statewide meeting of Buddhist monks in Rakhine state that called precisely for ethnic cleansing, for action against the Muslims who they — the Rakhine view as an existential threat against themselves.

What we can say is that the idea of impunity to attack Muslims is apparently contagious. Seeing that it was done in Arakan state indicated that, hey, they can get away with it in Arakan state. We can get away with it here.

KIRA KAY: Wirathu uses the Rakhine upheaval as a rallying call.

WIRATHU: Anywhere Muslims are a majority, there is violence, like what happened in Rakhine state. That is why our idea is to control the Muslim population.

KIRA KAY: Wirathu says he condemns all violence, and there is no evidence 969 members have plotted attacks against Muslims. But 969 propaganda was distributed in areas later hit by violence.

Today, much of the central Myanmar city of Meiktila looks like the aftermath of a tornado or tsunami. In March, an argument in a gold shop between a Buddhist customer and the Muslim owners sparked riots. Cell phone video from the scene shows Buddhist crowds tearing the building apart by hand.

That night, Muslims pulled a monk off a motorbike and set him on fire. The Buddhist community’s retaliation was immediate and overwhelming. In a Muslim village outside town, we met survivors of the Meiktila violence. All but one of them asked that we not reveal their identity.

MAN: While we were hiding, we were terrified, wondering, when I will be killed?

KIRA KAY: This 21-year-old says he and 100 others fled to nearby swampland after the Islamic school they were hiding in was attacked.

MAN: The police said they would save us and led us out in a line. But, on the way out, the crowd attacked, shouting, don’t come back, don’t set foot on this land, as they were killing us.

WOMAN: They hit my husband’s head with an axe, and he collapsed. Then the mob, including a monk and people from our village, threw him into the fire, still alive. They did this right in front of my eyes.

WIN HTEIN, National League for Democracy: The crowd was there. And it really is not a crowd. It’s a mob. They were chanting these anti-Muslim slogans.

KIRA KAY: Win Htein represents Meiktila in the country’s parliament and witnessed the attacks.

WIN HTEIN: When they learned that police were not taking action, they ran across inside the line and dragged some young people and killed in front of them. About 2,000 people were gathering, and they were cheering.

KIRA KAY: They were cheering?

WIN HTEIN: When someone was killed, they would cheer.

KIRA KAY: Over the three days of violence, at least 50 people, mostly Muslims, were burned alive or hacked to death; 18,000 were displaced; 12 of the town’s 13 mosques were destroyed or badly damaged.

WIN HTEIN: It is devastation, not materially, mentally, because the people now are so determined against Muslims coming to their own places. Some people are privately telling me that, don’t let them come back again.

KIRA KAY: Even amidst the violence, there were glimmers of humanity. Soe Nyund’s 76-year-old father was too slow to escape the mob, but Soe Nyund says the kindness of neighboring Buddhists spared his life.

SOE NYUND, Myanmar: We had a friendly and warm relationship with the monks and also with our Buddhist neighbors. They were the ones that hid me in the local temple.

KIRA KAY: Buddhist families suffered in Meiktila’s violence, too, primarily those from mixed neighborhoods. Several hundred remain homeless and camped on the grounds of a monastery.

Gazing at her destroyed neighborhood just the wall, resident Tun Tun Khaing longs for the way life used to be.

TUN TUN KHAING, Myanmar: Muslims ran small tea shops. Buddhists owned betel nut stalls, and Muslims would buy from them.

KIRA KAY: How do you feel when you stay here in this camp and you look across the field and see your burned house?

TUN TUN KHAING: It is hard to sleep, so I have to take sleeping pills. It’s worse because I also don’t have a job. I am just trying to survive.

KIRA KAY: Most startling in Meiktila was the prominence of 969 stickers. They are now everywhere, even on stalls standing beside shuttered Muslim shops and destroyed mosques.

And just feet from ground zero of the violence, the gold shop, demand is great for the 969 DVDs openly for sale, with Wirathu’s portrait on the cover.

Don’t you take any responsibility that your words may be giving people permission to act violently?

WIRATHU: What I have done is simply awaken people to what is going on in our country. The violence was triggered by the rape case in Rakhine and the murder of the Buddhist monk. My part is just to keep people on guard.

PUNYA WONTHA, Buddhist Monk: These monks want public popularity and donations. They do not think about how their actions could damage democracy or cause people trouble.

KIRA KAY: Some monks, like Punya Wontha, are now speaking out and trying to intervene. He believes these monks should be arrested.

PUNYA WONTHA: Back during the pro-democracy movement, the government and the state-appointed council of monks worked together to imprison monks who spoke out against the state. Now these monks are preaching, but the authorities have failed to take action against them.

PHIL ROBERTSON: The fact of the matter is, the police are failing to do their job. People who are committing violence or instigating violence are not being held responsible. This needs to be addressed by the government. Otherwise, the larger reform process could be at risk.

KIRA KAY: Back in Okkan, the scene of April’s violence, the village men take a break from rebuilding their houses to come together for prayers in their still-damaged mosque. They are starting life over, hoping the coexistence they enjoyed here for years can be restored.

GWEN IFILL: Kira Kay’s story is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting and their series “Fault Lines of Faith.”