What's Fueling the Buddhist-Muslim Clashes in Myanmar

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schacter: There was mixed news from Myanmar this week. On the one hand there were reports that President Thein Sein will make a state visit to Washington later this month. That would be a sign that relations with the U.S. continue to improve as democratic reforms in Myanmar take hold. But on the other, the countries unprecedented wave of religious violence continued. Mostly Buddhist mobs attacked two mosques and torched dozens of homes in the center of the country. And the anti-Muslim unrest is creeping closer to the commercial hub, Yangon. Reporter Bruce Wallace recently returned from Myanmar, where he says he noticed the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.

Bruce Wallace: There was definitely a sense, and I was surprised by how many people I would talk to and with very little prompting, and these were not Muslim people, these were by and large Buddhists, would kind of say disparaging things about Muslims. I remember one person I spent a long time with there who is in other ways, you know, very forward thinking, pro-democracy advocate. He had been a political prisoner for his activism. We were driving through one of the main Muslim neighborhoods in Yangon and I was talking to him about hearing the call to prayer, and he kind of got a real bad look on his face and just said, with not prompting, I think they all should leave. Which is kind of, I mean, he's very mild mannered, gentle guy aside from that. So it is, it's definitely something that's very engrained in a lot of parts of Myanmar culture, although I should say that other people I talked to, particularly younger people, say that this feeling doesn't exist among their friends. They say it's a thing of less educated people, rural people, but it's definitely very present.

Schacter: That might get to the reason then for the recent violence which was kicked off by what would seem like a fairly innocuous event. A Muslim woman apparently bumped into a young Monk by accident in the street.

Wallace: That's right, yeah, it's particularly innocuous. For anybody who's traveled in the country, been in the country, and seen how omnipresent Monks there are. It's surprising that they're not bumped into more often. But right, like you say, it's an indication of how very volatile this situation is. I mean, it has been for a long time and it's, but now we see a Monk bumped into and then riots break out, and one person was killed on Tuesday, ten or so injured, dozens and dozens of homes, and mosques, and shops destroyed. And we saw a similar incident in the end of March, a very small incident leading to days and days of rioting, and around 40 people killed in that incident.

Schacter: Yeah, and not only was this Monk bumped into but they are apparently participating in the violence. This certainly doesn't jibe with what we think of as Buddhist behavior.

Wallace: Right, and I don't think it jibes with the impression I got from, probably eight or nine, monasteries I spent time in. By and large they express no sentiments, no anti-Muslim sentiments. Although there definitely have been some prominent Monks vocally antagonizing against the Muslim population, both in central Myanmar and in western Myanmar. And one of the most prominent ones I talked to in early December, his name is U Wirathu. He's a head Monk at the Sprawling Monastery in Mandalay, about 3,000 Monks there. In his position, we were talking specifically about the situation in Rakhine, the western Myanmar state.

U Wirathu: [Speaking Burmese]

Interpreter: This is not an ethnic or religious conflict. It is a jihad to conquer a part of western Burma. The Muslims want to form an Islamic state, another country where they can rule with Sharia Law, and we must stop them.

Schacter: Now I wonder if the violence of the last few months might affect Myanmar's larger reform process.

Wallace: Well I think it at least points to what's at least the most intractable problem there, which is Burma's ongoing issues with its ethnic minorities. And the government, Thein Sein's government, has made progress with some ethnic minorities, but they seem at this point, fairly unable to deal with this recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims. But it seems like, to a certain extent, the international is willing to see this as growing pains. The EU, last week, dropped most of the remaining sanctions against Myanmar as a reward for the progress it's made since Thein Sein took government, and the U.S. made a similar move just yesterday. And also now there's talk of President Thein Sein visiting in a few weeks on an official state visit with high level meetings with the Obama administration, which would be the first such meeting for Thein Sein.

Schacter: Reporter Bruce Wallace, thank you so much.

Wallace: Thanks, Aaron.