After visiting Myanmar last September, I was of the view that the problems and acts of violence in Rakhine state of Myanmar were the result of resentment and hatred toward the Rohingya minority instead of a religious confrontation between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. When I heard about the targeting of houses of Kaman Muslim villagers in the October 2012 violence and reported incitement of anti-Muslim sentiments in Karen State by Buddhist monks, I feared this was an indication of a potentially worrying trend. Then, the recent news that a Muslim religious school was attacked by a Buddhist mob of 300 in Yangon incited by a weekly journal quoting a monk's inflammatory remarks truly made me reconsider my initial conclusion.
This phenomenon does not only occur in Myanmar, recently in Sri Lanka, anti-Muslim sentiments were stirred at a demonstration organized by the radical Buddhist party Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Force). Demonstrators used slogans similar to the ones used by radical Rakhine Buddhists: "Muslim extremists are threatening the Buddhist race, monks are ready to fight." I was already intrigued by Michael K. Jerryson's informative book on the role of Thai Buddhist monks in a religio-political conflict in Southern Thailand, titled "Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand." However, at the same time, I was encouraged by the open letter co-written and signed by some of the world's foremost Buddhist leaders calling for compassion and expressing their concern about the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. While the challenge seems to be quite complex, I hope these Buddhist leaders will continue their messages of peace and compassion to the Buddhist communities in these countries.
It is apparent that even though they may be a minority, there are radical Buddhist elements in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand who all reject the idea that Muslim minorities can be a part of their nations. It is worth considering whether such a rejectionist approach and marginalization of the Muslim minorities, particularly of the youth, ignites a counter radical force. This is a crucial point to consider at a time when radicalization threatens Muslim communities from West Africa to South East Asia.
In the case of Myanmar, inter-communal violence in Rakhine State resulted in 120,000 predominantly Muslim IDPs, yet the Myanmar government has only taken security measures and has not addressed the root causes. Additionally, the international community has not been able to meet the humanitarian needs fully and contribute to inter-communal reconciliation.
At the end of his last visit to Myanmar on Feb. 16, Tomás Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, warned that Rakhine State was going through a profound crisis that threatened to spread to other parts of the country and had the potential to undermine the entire reform process in Myanmar. He drew attention to his finding that feelings of fear, distrust, hatred and anger remained high between communities. He emphasized that education, responsible local journalism, as well as mutually respectful dialogue between community leaders were needed to address this situation. He also underlined the challenge of assuring safe passage for humanitarian assistance to Muslim IDP camps and stated that local and international medical staffs were unable to provide medical care to some of the Muslim camps due to the threats and harassment they face from local Rakhine Buddhist communities.
It is unfortunate that the Myanmar government allowed the radical voices to take Myanmar's engagement with the OIC hostage, thus depriving both Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists from any extensive humanitarian assistance to be provided by the governments and NGOs of the OIC membership.
Despite the critical reports of Quintana and of human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the international community followed the lead of the E.U., U.S. and ASEAN members and opted to take the pressure off Myanmar. In a paradoxical way, some saw Rohingyas and other human rights challenges as a distraction in their efforts to encourage democratization in Myanmar and obtain a foothold in this lucrative emerging market.
As a result, the E.U.-sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolution on Myanmar adopted in December 2012 was unique not only because it is the first country-specific human rights resolution which was adopted by consensus but also because only three of its 22 operational paragraphs expressed the U.N. General Assembly's concern.
Certainly, unprecedented changes occurred in Myanmar in a short period of time, but many human rights challenges, including the plight of Rohingyas, remain unresolved. Time will tell whether this lots-of-carrots-but-no-sticks policy of the international community for Myanmar will pay off.