Reading Gabriele Marranci’s website earlier this week I came across a story on the Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It is an interesting story that has hardly received any media coverage the last weeks during the conflict in Burma (see for example a search in Dutch on Google). They mainly live in the Northern part of Burma represent 4% of the Burma population but 50% in that area. Islam was brought to Burma in 9th century via merchants. Their own state, Arkana, was annexed by a Burmese King in the 18th century and in the 19th century by the British colonizers. As happened in other places too, the Burmese Muslims were promised that they would get their own autonomous region which never came into existence. The relationship between Muslims and Buddhists was one of peaceful coexistence during some times and (violent) prosecution and expulsion in other times. Their support for the British troops (while Buddhists supported the Japanese troops), their attempts for having autonomy and of course also the usual meta-narratives about Islam (in which the destruction of the Bamyan statues by the Taliban plays in important role) show how global and local narratives influence the position of these Muslims.
Nowadays Muslims are not considered to be citizens and have very few rights if at all. Also, there have been reports of discrimination and violence against Muslims in the last decade. As Marranci notes in his entry Buddhism seems to be the religion of peace and Islam the religon of violence in much of the media representations (in Western cases I think also Islam as a foreign product is important in those representations, while Buddhism is more exotic then foreign given the adherence of many famous people in Western countries to Buddhism), the violence against Muslims by Buddhists may seem odd. The tensions between Muslims and Buddhists does not necessarily mean that religion plays a role although in both cases religion has been used in the past to mobilise people and/or legitimate violence (contrary to the image that even is the case with Buddhism as Bernard Faure shows here, pag 37 – note that I’m not saying that Buddhism or Islam is inherently violent, that is a totally different thing).
It is difficult to guess what will happen when the politically engaged monks will succeed when they overthrow the regime (well…if that happens), the words of Aung San Suu Kyi are hopeful however:
Another e-mail from Shaik Ubaid, New York, USA:
I am a physician and a human rights activist. I am greatly concerned about the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims of Arakan. Does your vision include a pluralistic Burma with equal rights for all, including religious minorities?
Aung San Suu Kyi:
Democracy does mean pluralism and democracy means equal basic human rights for everybody. I am confident that we can build up a really strong and united Burma. The signs are all here.
In some ways, the sufferings we have undergone together have built up a tremendous feeling of trust among each other. Our sufferings have united us. I think the world has opened up in such a way that different cultures are able to reach across to each other.
We all live in the same country – we have lived in the same country for centuries and because we have lived together so closely, we have had our problems. You have more problems with your neighbours than with people who live very far away from you – that’s only natural. But I think we can also learn to be very, very good neighbours in the same way because we all live in this country we can learn to be very good and loving towards each other. We can learn to trust each other, we can learn to work together, we can learn to live together and I think that learning process has already begun.
More information can be found on Rohingya.org.