News / Asia

Religious Unrest Threatens Reform, Warns Burma

A police officer mans a roadside checkpoint in Rangoon, Burma, March 26, 2013. The government is warning that religious violence could threaten democratic reforms after anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three Buddhist towns.
A police officer mans a roadside checkpoint in Rangoon, Burma, March 26, 2013. The government is warning that religious violence could threaten democratic reforms after anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three Buddhist towns.
Daniel Schearf
The Burmese governent as publically acknowlegded that spreading tensions between Buddhists and Muslims are threatening democratic reforms.

The warning, broadcast on national television late Monday, came after a week of deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims spread from central Burma, raising fears of a wider religious conflict. On Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency Friday in Meiktila and nearby townships south of Mandalay, asking the army to help quell the violence.  
The military restored order to Meiktila, but Buddhist mobs later burned mosques and homes in towns further south. Fears of unrest spreading to the former capital, Rangoon, prompted some shop owners to close their doors early.
Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political advisor to the president of Burma, acknowledged problems with Buddhist extremists in Burma in an interview with VOA.
"Yes, there's some very extremist elements in the Buddhist societies," he said. "But, now many prominent Buddhists, senior monks they are coming to the sites of the events and, along with the religious leaders from the Muslim communities, to settle this dispute peacefully."
  • A crowd in Meikhitla, Burma is looting merchandise from a shop, March 22, 2013. The shop owner is pleading for the crowd to not set fire to his store, telling them instead to take whatever they want. 
  • Muslims carry their belongings as they arrive at a stadium that offers them a safe haven amid riots in Meikhtila March 22, 2013.
  • People ride their mopeds past the remains of two persons killed in clashes in Meikhtila March 22, 2013. 
  • Policemen are deployed to provide security amid riots in Meikhtila March 22, 2013. 
  • Firemen attempt to extinguish fires during riots in Meikhtila March 22, 2013. 
  • Muslims emerge from their homes after a senior Buddhist monk and police arrived to protect them amid riots in Meikhtila March 22, 2013.

The bloodshed began last week with a dispute in Meiktila between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer that escalated into street fighting and looting.
Authorities initially downplayed the religious divisions and portrayed the incident as rioting and looting.  But after a monk was killed, mobs of Buddhists, armed with knives and clubs, ransacked Muslim neighborhoods, set fire to mosques, and burned homes.  
Some journalists who attempted to video tape and photograph the violence were threatened by monks wielding knives.
Too few of Burma's majority Buddhists are willing to challenge extremist views from some religious leaders, said Matthew Walton, professor of political science at George Washington University.
"Particularly when monks are out and leading, it can be very hard for people to resist or to criticize this argument that you have to protect Buddhism and, that to do it, you have to commit some sort of violence or discriminate against a certain community."
Walton added Muslims are one group that has historically been targeted as scapegoats in Burma when feelings of insecurity arise. And, with the country's dramatic changes, he said many are uncertain about the future and looking for someone to blame.
"We can see their lack of awareness in the fact that they give credence to these rumors or fears of, you know, a sort of Muslim expansion or Islamic extremism in the country where we really see virtually not evidence of any of that," Walton said. "And, the idea that Islam poses a threat to Buddhism in Myanmar, you know, seems almost laughable to most of us who have spent a lot of time in the country."
The anti-Muslim rioting follows communal violence last year in western Rakhine state.  Fighting between Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists left close to 200 dead and 120,000 displaced, the vast majority of them stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Since last year's clashes, extremists on both sides have been spreading propaganda and encouraging divisions mostly through online campaigns.  
Min Zaw Oo, with the Myanmar Peace Center, said authorities are struggling with how to deal with hate speech as there are no specific laws against it.
"From the government perspective, it… has become a real hard choice: Whether to tackle these groups and be accused as suppressing freedom of expression.  But, at the same time, letting them do what they are doing may somewhat incite the religious and ethnic animosity. "
Despite the religious tensions, there have been some signs of goodwill between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Some senior monks have called for religious tolerance and have actively helped Muslims displaced by the recent violence.
Burma authorities have also pledged to hold talks to try to rebuild trust between the communities.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: BurmeseDaze from: Yangon
March 26, 2013 9:44 PM
Thanks to the Buddhist tradition of tolerance and compassion you will find mosques, churches, temples, joss houses, and other places of worship across Myanmar.

The *outsiders* for generations have co-existed with the Burmese, known for their ever-loving kindness. This is the foundation of our culture because *Buddhism has affected the Burmese like no other people*.

In the past – and even today -- the despicable extremists, including former communists and ultra-nationalists, tend to sacrifice the docile and non-political Muslims in their ugly bid for power. The radicals conveniently ignore the fact that Muslims loyally served in the government and military since ancient times.

A Muslim *freedom fighter* in Burma's struggle for independence, U Razak, was assassinated along with General Aung San in 1947. No one can question his love for the country.

Beware of political agitators disguised as monks, inciting violence and hatred.

The riots are more an assault on the venerable Buddhist monastic order – the Sangha.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs