The Burmese Muslims Who Are Refugees in Their Own Country
Above: Internally displaced persons in the gymnasium that has become their home in the “district playground” IDP camp.
Last month, United Nations human rights worker Tomas Quintana was set upon by a mob as he tried to visit a camp for Muslim refugees in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. “My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people, who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of the car while shouting abuse,” Quintana said in a statement.
Yet Burma’s government seemed relatively untroubled by the incident. Ye Hut, a presidential spokesman, told members of the media that Quintana had simply misinterpreted the situation. Apparently, the mob wasn’t a mob at all, but a welcoming party of peaceful protesters who were trying to give him a letter and a T-shirt. A few days earlier, through no small amount of bureaucratic wrangling, the photographer Andrew Stanbridge and I were able to visit the camp Quintana had been headed towards, as well as a few others nearby. I guess we weren’t as welcome there as the big UN hotshots, however, because we weren’t greeted by hundreds of people battering our car while trying to pass notes through the window.
Furious Buddhists Are Making Life Hell for Sri Lanka’s Muslims
Muslims are under attack in Sri Lanka. Recent reports indicate that gangs of Buddhists have been roaming the streets, administering bloody mob beatings, and attacking places where Muslims work and worship. Raw pork has been thrown into mosques, the Halal logo has been banned, and the prominent Muslim government critic Azad Sally has been arrested. One dramatic incident ended with government commandos being deployed to maintain law and order after a gang of Buddhistsinjured four people at a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, forcing it to close and a curfew to be put in place.
Moulavi Fazil Farooq, from the Islamic political group All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, told me that Muslims’ “freedom of religion and freedom of speech” are under threat in Sri Lanka. He also sent me in the direction of one of the Buddhist groups that have been accused of carrying out the attacks: Bodu Bala Sena, which roughly translates as “Buddhist Power Force.” Their stated aim is to “protect” Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka, as it’s apparently under threat from Muslim and Christian groups. (For context, 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist—less than 10 percent is Muslim, fewer still are Christian.)
Is Burma’s Government Involved in Ethnic Cleansing?
The last couple of weeks have been filled with mixed news for the Burmese government. On the bright side, the European Union decided to permanently lift sanctions against the country and deeper trade ties with the United States were announced—both moves likely to result in more foreign investment and lucrative business deals. Shortly after, President Thein Sein received a peace prize from a prominent NGO for his role in promoting internal reforms.
However, on the negative side, state agencies were accused of complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Two things that don’t really sound that worthy of a peace prize and raise serious questions about the ethics of the West’s increasingly cozy relationship with Burma.
These allegations are outlined in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in connection with two outbreaks of violence last year. In these attacks, the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community and other Burmese Muslims were attacked by government forces and mobs of local Buddhists. The violence, which took place in Burma’s western Rakhine state last June and October, left scores dead and more than100,000 displaced, most of whom have been crammed into IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
After recently returning from the site of last year’s violence myself, the new report makes for essential reading. It documents many allegations that fit exactly with the testimony of witnesses I’d met around Sittwe, the capital of the afflicted region. It also cites evidence of open support from local political parties and religious groups for targeted attacks on the Rohingya minority—some calling directly for ethnic cleansing.
The report also mentions another incident, one in which 18 half-naked dead bodies were dumped by security forces in a Rohingya displacement camp. Subsequently, the police ordered local residents to bury the dead in a mass grave.
Locals who saw the body pile before it was buried took photographs, which I managed to obtain. The images, most of which are too graphic to display without some kind of censorship, show corpses with a series of horrific wounds to their heads and bodies; in one case a man’s face is sliced almost into three parts. Another photo shows a dead child with a bloodied head lying next to a body bag crowded with maggots. Others have their hands attached to objects that they’d presumably been tied to while being executed.
Burma’s Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering, and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoized into a series of internally displaced-person (IDP) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, things escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed, and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces—again, involving rape and murder—in the aftermath. Further violence elsewhere in the state during October pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new—they have been subjected to marginalization and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterized the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is undeniably rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar." (Kalar being a racist term for the Rohingya). “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art-therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to draw their memories of last year’s violence using colored pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew lying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a Rakhine man smash a woman’s skull in until some of her brains spilled out.
Dancing Idiots, Candy Floss, and Rubber Bullets: Passover in Hebron, Palestine
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I’ve seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism, and, therefore, Christianity. I don’t subscribe to any of those, but—despite the fact that the founder of three of the world’s largest religions surely has enough love to go around—I guess it’s understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father’s grave.
Hebron’s current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it’s been divided into two sectors—one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalized on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning clusterfuck that is today’s Hebron.
Is Burma’s Anti-Muslim Violence Led By “Buddhist Neo-Nazis”?
When most Westerners think of Buddhism, they think of smiling men with potbellies and inspirational quotes from Phil Jackson. “Buddhist neo-Nazi” sounds like a contradiction in terms.
But in Burma, vicious anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise, and Buddhist extremists are responsible for attacking Muslims and burning down their houses and mosques, a state of affairs that was largely ignored until Anonymous launched a Twitter campaign to teach the world about the genocide against the Rohingya people, the officially stateless Muslims who many believe will be massacred if the world does not respond.
According to Dr. Muang Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics, much of the blame for the current situation in Burma can be laid at the feet of the 969 group, which he describes as an neo-Nazi organization of hatemongers who are using Hitlerian tactics to “purify” the country by getting rid of the Muslims—it’s also, he says, one of the fastest-growing movements in the country.
I spoke to Dr. Zarni to find out more about what’s going on in Burma and how a Buddhist can be a “Nazi.”
VICE: Who are the 969, and what does the number mean?
Dr. Muang Zarni: The 969 leaders are Burmese men in monks’ robes. It’s a bit difficult to describe them as genuine monks because they are preaching a message of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is completely incompatible with the Buddhist message of universal kindness. The 969 number stands for three things: the 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha, the founder of the religion; the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of dharma; and finally, the last 9 stands for special characteristics or attributes of the clergy.
You’ve described the 969 group as “Burma’s fastest-growing neo-Nazi ‘Buddhist’ nationalist movement.” What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
I use the word neo-Nazi because their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma—all of them, including the ethnically Burmese—are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root.
There is a parallel between what we saw in Nazi Germany and what we are seeing today in Burma. The 969 movement and its leading spokespersons call for attacking the Muslims of Burma—not just the Rohingyas in western Burma who were incorrectly framed as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but all Muslims from Burma. Buddhist people who try to help Muslims or buy groceries from Muslim businesses are either beaten up or intimidated or ostracized by other Buddhists.
Also, the military is involved with this movement. At best, the military authorities are tolerating the message of hatred coming from the Buddhist preachers. At worst, and I believe this to be true, elements within the military leadership are passively backing this movement. Over the past 50 years since the military came to power, there has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organizations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.
Open Season in the Holy Land
Over Thanksgiving, Israel launched an attack on the Gaza Strip, killing Hamas’ second-in-command, Ahmed Jabari. In retaliation, Hamas began firing rockets that were some of the first missiles to hit parts of Israel in 20 years. VICE traveled to the Israel-Gaza border to see what eternal tension had flared up this time.
Inside Aleppo, Syria’s “Stalingrad”
I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi’s relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria’s uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man’s destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.
I Left My Family For the Free Syrian Army
Loubna Mrie grew up in a high-profile Alawite family, but unlike most of the adherents to the Twelver school of Shia Islam, Loubna does not support the Assad regime. When civil war broke out last March and Assad’s troops began shooting civilian protesters, she was persuaded by friends to support the rebels of the nascent Free Syrian Army in Damascus, where in February she was assigned to a six-month ordnance-smuggling stint.
When the revolt began I was opposed to armed revolution. Then the cruelty of the Syrian Army forced me to change my opinions about the possibility of a peaceful resistance movement.
You should know that the FSA are not a strange army that just came to Syria. They are friends whom we were protesting and working with before any sort of rebel force was actualized. I knew they needed help, so I asked what I could do. One of them said they needed bullets, so I called my friend who took me to another area (it would be irresponsible for me to say exactly where) to buy them. I later smuggled them back. It’s not complicated, but it’s very dangerous.
At checkpoints, the Alawites, Christians, and Druze (followers of a branch of Shia Islam who also incorporate other beliefs into their religion) are always free to pass—the government and the shabiha (armed men in plain clothes who support the regime) think all the activists are Sunni. They don’t thoroughly search believers of these other faiths, so they can smuggle anything easily—even guns.