BANGKOK, Thailand — In the minds of Myanmar’s Buddhist extremists, Muslim men are constantly scheming for their women.
There are plots to systematically seduce naive Buddhist girls into converting to Islam. There are plots to infiltrate the military by marrying daughters of high-ranking officers. And there is the ultimate plot: to overthrow the government and transform Myanmar — the land of shimmering Buddhist pagodas — into an Islamic state.
No evidence suggests these plots actually exist. Yet vigilante extremists — whose views on racial and religious purity evoke the Ku Klux Klan — are successfully exploiting these fears to spark deadly anti-Muslim riots. Rape allegations have proven particularly effective in whipping up a mob rampage through anti-Muslim neighborhoods.
The latest riot, in the sun-baked city of Mandalay, broke out after a Buddhist maid accused two Muslim tea shop owners of rape. Soon afterward, according to accounts provided to GlobalPost, men on motorbikes zoomed into Muslim neighborhoods and began smashing windows.
Some Muslims fled. Others weren’t so lucky. The riots ended with 20 injuries and the deaths of two men — one Buddhist, one Muslim.
The Buddhists who fought to avenge the woman’s honor, however, were misled. Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed the woman was paid $1,000 to report a made-up rape. She’s now in prison along with the men accused of paying her off.
This isn’t the first string of violence set off by rape allegations. At least three other anti-Muslim mob attacks — two in coastal Rakhine State, another in the dusty plains of Sagaing State — were waged by angry Buddhists seeking revenge following rape accusations. Some rapes appear to be genuine; other cases still await trial.
In total, a dozen-odd villages and cities in Myanmar have suffered through riots in recent years. The attacks have left hundreds dead and — in some areas — reduced Muslim districts to rubble and forced families into squalid refugee camps. Muslims are a minority in Myanmar, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, and they are simply outnumbered when their communities clash with Buddhist mobs.
“They think Muslims are taking their ladies. They think we’re taking their money. It’s all propaganda,” said Myo Win, a senior member of the Burmese Muslim Association. (The title Burma, Myanmar’s name under colonial British rule, is still widely used.)
“People easily accept these rumors," Myo Win said. “When you have a lack of education, it’s easy for people to accept hate speech — especially when it’s preached by influential monks.”
Myanmar is plagued with a long list of troubles. It is still emerging from five decades of military dictatorship. Its hills are patrolled by guerrillas allegiant to armed ethnic groups that resist the central government. Child labor, malnutrition and corruption are rife. In recent years, a new wave of leaders — in a parliament under the army’s sway — have vowed to transform Myanmar into a freer and more harmonious society.
But that dream has been stained by persistent anti-Muslim riots. A monk-led movement known as 969, a reference to Buddhist numerology, has sown bizarre rumors of imminent Muslim takeover financed by Middle East oil money. Many of these conspiracy theories involve Muslim men plotting to seduce, convert and impregnate Buddhist women.
The specter of rapacious Muslim men, plotting a slow genocide of Buddhists through sexual conquest, is actually quite old in Myanmar.
A 1938 newspaper article, translated by The Journal of Burma Studies, offers a stern warning to Buddhist ladies who marry Muslims brought over by British colonizers: “You Burmese women who fail to safeguard your own race ... are responsible for the ruination of the race.”
Another book, written by a retired veteran of the Myanmar government’s foreign service named Maung Tha La, alleges these Muslim plots began decades ago. Young Muslim men, he writes, are led by a global Islamic conspiracy to “emigrate into the Union of Burma, the land of abundant food and pretty damsels, to marry the native maidens ... to spread Islam ... and ultimately overthrow the government.”
There are many books like this in Myanmar. A more recent tract is titled “If You Marry a Man of a Different Race and Religion.” It’s described by a local news outlet as containing “11 stories about Buddhist women who were sexually abused, raped or forced to marry members of another ‘evil’ religion.”
Buddhist extremists are operating under a “demographics siege mentality,” said Kyaw San Wai, a senior analyst of Myanmar’s politics at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“With views of Muslim men poorly treating their spouses, and of supposed plots to systematically marry and convert Buddhist women,” he said, “it becomes a potent and volatile mindset that just needs an accusation of rape or murder to spark off violence.”
These rumors aren’t new, he said. Kyaw San Wai recalls dubious gossip from the 1990s that oil-rich Arabs were rewarding Myanmar’s Muslim men with cash if they could marry Buddhist women. The men get bonus pay — so the rumor goes — if they marry and convert a woman of high status such as a lawyer or doctor.
But that rhetoric is lightweight compared to other calls to arms. Articles in a magazine published by a political party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, can be downright chilling.
The Buddhist-led party is popular in a coastal region that has witnessed wave after wave of bloody anti-Muslim purges in the last two years. Local Buddhist mobs have explicitly targeted an ethnically Bengali and highly persecuted Muslim sect called the Rohingya.
“Hitler and Eichmann were the enemy of the Jews. But they were probably heroes to the Germans,” the party magazine stated in 2012, according to a translation by the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Inhuman acts may justifiably be committed. ... We will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these [Muslim Rohingya] issues to the next generation without getting it over and done with.”
The average Buddhist in Myanmar is kindly toward Muslims and doesn’t harbor such extreme ideas, Myo Win said. But the revival of old stereotypes — particularly about scheming Muslim men — has many Muslim neighborhoods tense with fear.
“These rumors are tactics. They’re tools to mobilize people,” he said. “But if you look more closely, you see they don’t make any sense.”