Rangoon plays the Muslim card
March 28 , 1997
Twelve days after monks in Mandalay went on the rampage, setting off attacks on Musli m property and protests by their robed brethren across Burma, the clergy and military met face to face in temples yestday to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
Government-controlled television repeatedly showed the powerful generals offering food and other items to abbots at several monasteries. In one incident, young monks could be seen sitting behind the doors and huge throne of their abbot. They couldn’t see the generals, who in accordance with Burmese Buddhist traditions, performed, daga, making donations to Buddha and the monks.
T he unease and worry on the faces and in the easys of the young monks was obvious.
Unconfirmed reports say more than 100 monks have been detained and forced to disrobe in the last two weeks. Monasteries remain surrounded by soldiers.
“Monks are not allowed to go out, they wouldn’t let the monks march on Armed Forces Day,” a Rangoon resident said.
The Slorc, or State Law and Order Restoration Council, said that last week’s rioting was politically motivated and a ploy to embarrass the junta’s increasing ties with the three Muslim countries in Asean. But the question remains: Who started it?
On Saturday about 15 monks in Ahlone township in Rangoon walked to a nearby mosque, went in and destoryed it. The group, joined by young monks from another monastery, then marched to a second mosque inside the Ahlone Forestry Department compound. The Muslims inside the Mosque run away before the monks arrived.
The next day about 50 monks at Bargaya Road in Rangoon followed by soldiers and riot polic went to another mosque, chanting, “We don’t want Muslims” and throwing stones at the mosque. The authorities did not intervene.
Interestingly, sources said one mosque in downtown Rangoon attacked by the angry monks was frequented by Rangoon-based Indonesia embassy officials. Lt Gen Myo Nyunt, Burma’s religious minister went to meet local Muslim leaders and reportedly said: “Let them [monks] destroy it-don’t resist them, the army will compensate you for everything.”
A young monk in Rangoon did not deny that they were involved. “Yes! We do have a plan to protest against this brutal regime. Our target is Slorc.”
But why attack mosques and Muslims? “The Muslims are victims of Suharto’s visit,” noted one resident in Rangoon. Indonesia’s President Suharto visited Burma recently and strongly backed Burma’s admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Besides Suharto, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir gave his fullbacking to Slorc’s application to become a member of the regional grouping.
Not surprisingly, the two leaders support did not go down well with many prodemocracy monks and Burmese dissidents. “There is a growing anti-Muslim feeling,” said one. “The two Kala countries are supporting the facist regime,” muttered one dissident in Rangoon. Kala basically means Indian or white forgeign- it is widely considered a term of abuse.
The trouble started in Mandalay, Burma’s second capital. Young monks ransacked mosques and destroyed shops and houses owned by Muslims. Korans were torn up and scattered along the city’s main streets.
Troops were eventually sent in and a curfew imposed. The riot, officials said, was triggered by a report that a Buddhist girl was molested by Muslims. But that wasn’t the only issue that sent monks onto the streets. The news, in fact, was created by Slorc itseif, dissidents charged.
“The rape case happened a few weeks ago and it was all sorted out,” said one local resident.
An original protest was planned for March 13, which is Burma’s unofficial human rights day Slorc learned of the plan and arrested the monks. Thus demostrations began on March 15, and the Slorc immediately circulated the rape story.
“So what happened was that the Muslims were used aas a tool,” said Moe Thee Zun, a former student leader. It wasn’t the first time, however. Prior to the 1988 uprising the then Gen Ne Win government stirred up anti-Muslim feelings in major cities to divert the public’s attention. Fanning such emotions is not difficult because of widespread prejudice against Muslims in Burma.
Long before the rape case, the Mandalay monks had planned a separate anti-government demonstration for March. They held several secret meeting in October and November last year. In December about 60 monks attended a meeting at a secret place where they formed a monks union.
U Khay Mar Sarya, leader of the All Burma Young Monks Union (ABYMU) said the original demonstration was planned to protest against human rights abuses by the government. “About 16 monks have died in prison-some have been taken to the front line and killed.” he said.
“We [Slorc and monks] are enemies – we will never ever forget how our monks were killed and tortured,” said U Khay Mar Sarya. Since 1988, a dozen well-respected abbots and senior monks have been arrested and received heavy prison terms. They were forced to disrobe while in prison. About 100 monks are still believed to be under detention.
The authorities learned quicly of the underground monk union and the young monks’ activities. On Feb 22 the Slorc officials and monks from the Mandalay Sangha Committee held a meeting in Mandalay palace. At the meeting, the senior monks and abbots were asked to control young monks and make sure that no disturbances occurred. Following this, a number of monks who had been planning local demostrations were taken in for interrogayion.
In Rangoon, monks have also been busy distributing anti-Slorc leaflets and atteneding Aung San Suu Kyi’s weekend gatherings. When students in Rangoon staged a peaceful protest in December monks in Mandalay attempted to join them but were stopped by authorities. Last month, five monks travelling from Mandalay to Moulmein to organis demostrations were stopped by authorities. Last month, five monks travelling from Mandalay to Moulmein to organise demostrations were arrested at Thaton.
Since Gen Ne Win came into power were other contributing factors to the rioting in addition to the planned protest.
Opposition figures say there were other contributing factors to the rioting in addition to the planned protest.
“Prior to the news being spread about the rape case, there were reports about Slorc’s systematic looting of pagoda treasures at several temples in upper Burma and about the breaking open of the famous Maha Mya Muni Buddha statue in Mandalay to search for the legendary ruby-the Padamya Myetshin-which supposedly brings war victories to those who possess it,” the self-proclaimed Government in Exile said in a statement.
“Buddhists have already been angered by these reports and it was indeed fortunate for the generals that a report about the rape was very conveniently spread around,”
Shortly after the riot the junta started to spread a rumour the opposition party had sent “phoney monks” to create disturbance. The National League for Democracy said it had no thing to do with riot.
“We know destructive elements in and out of Burma are trying to create instability,” said a Slorc general. A Slorc spokesman also said the government will protect the Muslim community. But that doesn’t mean anything to the Muslims in Burma have been discriminated against for many years. Ironically, the junta itself has been leading an anti-Muslim campaing for years.
“Whenever governments in Burma are in a tight spot they always use Muslims as a scapegoat. We have been victimised,” said Kyaw Hla leader of the Muslim association in exile.
“I believe the riot was created by Slorc they have no other no other choice-they did it just for their own survival,” In an open letter to Muslim countries the Muslim Liberation Organisation of Burma said the Slorc army is also burning down many mosques, destorying Holy Korans,forcing Muslims to eat pork, raping Muslim girls, killing Muslims were killed, and Muslims are not being allowed to return to their homes in Burma.
In December,troops ordered Muslim families in Karen state to move out of Nabu village though they had nowhere to go.
An army officer was quoted as saying: “We don’t want to see kala faces.”
That shouldn’t please Suharto and Mahathir.