News24

Myanmar: Distrust fuels anti-Muslim violence

2012-06-06 09:36

Sittwe - An eruption in religious tensions in Myanmar has exposed the deep divisions between the majority Buddhists and the country's Muslims, considered foreigners despite a decades-long presence.

The violence threatens to overshadow reconciliation efforts in the country formerly known as Burma, where there has been a series of dramatic political reforms since almost half a century of military rule ended last year.

The trigger for the latest surge in sectarian tensions was the rape and murder of a woman in western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, for which three Muslim men have been detained, according to state media.

On Sunday a mob of hundreds of people attacked a bus, believing the perpetrators were on board, and beat 10 Muslims to death.

"These innocent people have been killed like animals," said Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the country's much-persecuted stateless Muslim Rohingya community.

"If the police cannot control the situation, maybe the [unrest] is going to spread," he said, adding that the biggest fear was for Rakhine state, where there is a large Muslim minority population including the Rohingya.

In Myanmar's main city Yangon, dozens of Muslims protested on Tuesday calling for justice.

Muslims entered Myanmar en masse for the first time as indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.

But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.

"For many people, a Burmese is a Buddhist by definition. Buddhism forms an essential part of their identity," said Jacques Leider, a historian at the French School of the Far East based in northern Thailand.

"The situation is explosive and from friction to the clashes is only a matter of lighting the fuse," he told AFP shortly before the latest violence.

Myanmar's Muslims - of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent - account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.