His Facebook account is almost certainly hacked by the government and his life has already been threatened three times by Buddhist mobs.
The last time, five men approached him with sticks, and he barely escaped on his bicycle. It is not uncommon for Muslims to be beaten to death by small gangs of Buddhists in Burma.
So, he wants me to get my article out as soon as possible in case he is killed. Sometimes our nightly chats on Facebook remind me of the beginnings of a spy movie, as we endlessly discuss how we can smuggle him across borders and win him asylum.
Kyaw Kyaw Win is the leader of a village close to Rangoon for the National League for Democracy. His is the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and often considered the Nelson Mandela of Burma. But Kyaw is not only an activist, he is a Muslim. The two together in Burma can be a deadly concoction. Suu Kyi is not in a position to speak out in favor of the rights of Muslims, who are increasingly the victims of persecution. Her party is under threat and losing popular support, as the ruling generals coordinate with respected Buddhist monks, who whip mobs into a nationalist fury.
Run by a small body of generals for the last half century, Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world. Ever since independence from British rule in 1948, it has been riven with ethnic rebellions in its hinterlands. Leaders have see-sawed back and forth between granting autonomy to ethnic minorities and centralizing authority. But centralization has almost always carried the day.
The centralization of power in Burma has long involved one of the world’s most rigorous systems of censorship. The censorship is so great that Burmese would, until quite recently, regularly risk their lives to provide little bits of information to foreigners traveling through the country. A friend of mine who traveled there as a tourist in the mid-2000s, for instance, told of a man who approached him to sell some art. After flipping through the man’s drawings, he came to a page with a message asking my friend to tell the world about what is happening to the Burmese.
But things have been looking brighter in the last few years.
As dictators across the Middle East were clamping down on Arab Spring activists, Burma’s ruling junta was announcing their desire to open the country up and hold elections. Much the same thing had happened in 1990, at which time Suu Kyi won the Presidency. The results were not expected and were thus nullified by the generals. She was then put under 15 years of on-and-off house arrest, which ended in 2010. While she is now free to lead her party, she has nevertheless been barred from running for office under a carefully crafted law that forbids office holding to people who are married to foreigners.
While the country has opened up over the past few years, it has only made things worse for the minority Muslims. The process of democratization can expose social fissures that have long been covered over. Perhaps the most contentious in Burma lies with the Muslim Rohingya, who are now being ethnically cleansed. While they began migrating to Burma in the early nineteenth century, they have often passed back and forth into bordering Bangladesh and have never been integrated into the countries’ majority Buddhist population. Swamping population centers in the coastal Arakan state, they have long been resented by locals, who have now had enough.
The Muslim Rohingya are stateless refugees. Most have been pushed by Buddhist mobs into neighboring Bangladesh, with about 140,000 remaining in Burma—in what have often been referred to as concentration camps. The United Nations says that they are one of the most oppressed peoples in the world. Buddhist leaders in Burma accuse them of having ties to al-Qaeda. But while numerous mountain ethnic groups have remained in a near constant state of armed rebellion since independence, the Rohingya have been far more peaceful. Still, the mobs that hunt them have often raped the women and killed the men in a pattern typical of many ethnic cleansings and genocides.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these mobs is that they are spurred on by monks. The Buddhist sangha, or community of monks, is sharply divided over these persecutions. Throughout its history, monks in Burma have tended to be highly political. Prior to British colonialism, they often set the conditions for state power. And they played a leading role in resisting both the British and the later junta of generals.
In much the same way that late twentieth century Islamism tended to arise in places where people living under dictatorships could only organize in the mosques, because they could organize safely in the monasteries, monks have often played a leading role in Burma’s political resistance. But as the democratization process exposes the inner fault lines of Burmese society, these same monks are increasingly turning to nationalism.
Buddhist teachers outside of Burma have spoken out against this violence. A letter signed by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, among others, urged the Burmese sangha to abide by Buddhist teachings of nonviolence. Another signed by 381 American Buddhist teachers, urged President Obama to raise the issue, which he did, in his recent trip to Burma.
But the murderous monks of Burma seem far more active than the silent sanghas of the world. Buddhists have long remained immune to the withering criticism of religion that is often expounded upon by a new breed of atheists. It would be a shame to see them direct their bitterness at Buddhists for all the right reasons. While Burma has a sizable population of 53 million people, few people outside of the region know much about what is happening there. Theravadan Buddhists could do much to expose this issue and pressure the monks and government. Most have instead sat silently—not even observing the suffering.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May
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