As Burma's Borders Open, Tensions Emerge Between Buddhists and Muslims

Source: Kaung Htet/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As the long-closed country of Burma (or, as its government would prefer, Myanmar) begins to open up, a tense picture is emerging of religious tensions in the country — and western media outlets have begun to take notice. 

An increasingly vocal group of Burmese Buddhists are distinguishing themselves "Radical Buddhists," inciting riots against the country's Muslims. Stories of violence have begun to trickle to the U.S., and today, the Washington Post reports conditions could get much, much worse:

Members of Burma’s Buddhist majority, including some of its much-respected monks, are increasingly persecuting the country’s long-suffering Muslim minority and adopting an ideology that encourages religious violence. It seems a far way from the Buddhism typically associated with stoic monks and the  Lama – who has condemned the violence – and more akin to the sectarian extremism prevalent in troubled corners of the Middle East. The violence has already left nearly 250 Burmese Muslim civilians dead, forced 150,000 from their homes and is getting worse.

“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu, a spiritual leader of the movement and very popular figure in Burma, said of the country’s Muslims, whom he called “the enemy.” 

Though the violence does not appear to have a single leader, Wirathu has gained followers through a series of DVDs and social media campaigns, in which he styles himself the "Burmese Bin Laden." He accuses Muslims of rape and incitement, and calls them a threat to the country's women. 

The New York Times describes Wirathu as "the spiritual leader of the radical movement, [who] skates a thin line between free speech and incitement, taking advantage of loosened restrictions on expression during a fragile time of transition." He spent eight years in jail under military rule.

“If we are weak,” Wirathu said, “our land will become Muslim.”  


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