Inside Story

Is ethnic unrest brewing in southeast Asia?

As Buddhist-Muslim tensions increase in the region, we examine the causes and the consequences of the conflict.

Last Modified: 24 Apr 2013 11:08
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Ethnic unrest in Myanmar has cast a wider spotlight on Buddhist-Muslim tensions in southeast Asia. 

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is warning of a wider fallout, which could fuel growing inter-faith unrest across the region.

Security forces in Myanmar have been accused of a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority Muslims. But a report by Human Rights Watch has also raised concern about who was at the heart of much of the violence, and in many cases, it says Buddhist monks were either involved or even leading attacks against Muslim communities.

The idea that Buddhist monks could lead attacks on another group of people for religious reasons seems quite shocking …

Sam Zarifi , Asia Pacific Director at the International Commission of Jurists  an international human rights group.

Yudhoyono is sounding a note of caution and says the violence could cause problems for Muslims elsewhere in the region.

"I will encourage Myanmar to address it wisely, appropriately and prevent tension and violence. We in Indonesia are ready to support them to reach those goals," he said

Earlier this month, eight Buddhist monks were allegedly beaten to death by Rohingya Muslims at an Indonesian detention centre. It is all serving to raise concerns across the region.

In Sri Lanka, where Muslims make up nine percent of the population, interfaith tensions are also causing concern.
Extremist Buddhist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena - or Buddhist strength force - say they are protecting their culture against Muslim influence.
Buddhist extremists have carried out attacks on Mosques, and Muslim-owned businesses. In southern Thailand, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have a historical dimension. 
Thailand annexed the Malay Muslim state of Pattani more than a hundred years ago. Muslims were not fully integrated into what is a predominantly Buddhist nation and a Muslim separatist movement has raged there for a decade.

And in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Buddhist-Muslim tensions have arisen from their economic standings. Chinese Buddhist minorities are seen as relatively wealthier than the native Muslim populations.
In Myanmar, the discord can be traced back to British colonial rule, when the country was known as Burma. Many Muslims migrating from India and what is now Bangladesh were given preferential treatment.

This is not the problem between Buddhist, Muslim or Christians - this a problem with the government and religious minorities ... 

Maung Kyaw Nu , the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand

Resentment grew after independence in 1948, and has been gaining momentum.

And this is one of the problems - a monk named Wirathu, has become known on the Internet as the Burmese Bin Laden. Wirathu was jailed for 25 years in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim hatred, but freed under a general amnesty in 2010.

Since his release he has gone back to preaching against Muslims. In one sermon he declared:
"We are being raped in every town, being sexually harassed in every town, being ganged up on and bullied in every town."
And in another sermon he warned:
"In Rakhine State, with their populaton explosion they are capturing it. And they will capture our country in the end."

So are there any solutions for this ethnic problem? How much time will it take before peace can be achieved, and what will be the consequences of these tensions?

Inside Story, with presenter Hazem Sika, discusses with guests: Maung Kyaw Nu from the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand, and a former political prisoner; Alex Berzin, a Buddhist scholar and teacher; and Sam Zarifi, Asia Pacific Director at the International Commission of Jurists, an international human rights group.

"I think that it is unfair to characterise these religious conflicts, I think that people are just using the  ... dominant religion of the various group  to characterise these groups, but there seem to be much more ethnic differences, and ethnic conflicts ...  " 

- Alex Berzin, Buddhist scholar and teacher 


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