Promoting the “Muslim threat” in Myanmar

Al Jazeera uncovers evidence of a deliberate government strategy to incite fear and hatred of the Rohingya minority.

Among the cache of evidence obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit are documents that analysts say prove the Myanmar government has sought to incite anti-Muslim sentiment.

One of the most significant items is a presentation used by members of the armed forces at a training session in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital city. The lecture aid instructs army cadets to view the state’s Muslim population as a threat to the nation as a whole, as well as to Buddhism itself.

Entitled “Fear of Losing One’s Race”, the document emphasises the danger posed to Myanmar by Islam, in part by making the case for the “probability of extinction” as a result of the manoeuvrings of “Bengali Muslims” in particular.

The term “Bengalis” is used by the government to refer to the Rohingya, a stateless minority living near the border with Bangladesh.

It instructs its audience that the group intends to “infiltrate the people to propagate their religion” and that their “population increases by way of mass illegal immigration”.

These claims are contained on a page headed by a well-known Burmese xenophobic, saying: “A race does not face extinction by being swallowed into the earth, but from being swallowed up by other peoples.”

A heading on another page asserts that Muslims “take advantage of Myanmar people whenever there is an opportunity”.

The conclusion reads: “We need to protect our race and religion as much as possible … Otherwise, Buddhism may vanish.”

Commenting on this document, former military insider and regime defector Sai Thein Win told Al Jazeera that he recognised the name of the college where the lecture was given, as well its military function, as a centre for psychological warfare.

“They recruit the propagandists and create rumours, which spread among the people. In this way, they influence the policy of the country,” he says, with the aim to “make the people worry, spread fear, hatreds and create conflicts”.

Dangerous propaganda

If the presentation was intended to promote the idea that Myanmar’s Muslims represent a looming danger to its Buddhist population, then a second internal document appears to have been designed to spread the message that the threat was imminent.

The memo, circulated among government officials in 2013, instructs its readership to make “necessary preparations” to counter a sinister Muslim plot against Buddhists. The paper promoted the idea of an Islamic conspiracy based solely on claims made by an unidentified “friendly group”. Their allegations are treated as fact throughout the text.

Citing a plot hatched in a Yangon Mosque to be enacted in September 2013, the document predicts that “students from Arabic orphanages will be selected to humiliate young girls with acts unacceptable to Buddhists” in order to create a “nationwide riot” between the two communities. 

Once the events have occurred, Muslims will burn their own houses down “and take photographs and video records for immediate worldwide circulation”, so as to defame Buddhists and attract sympathy, the document claims.

The dramatic events predicted in the memo never occurred. Professor Penny Green of the International State Crime Initiative, a research centre based at the University of London, told Al Jazeera that she thought the document was intended to heighten community tensions for political purposes.

“I think this is absolutely propaganda issued by the state. It’s a pedagogical exercise. It’s encouraging all township directors and instructing township administrators to make sure they are controlling their Muslim population.”

Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based advocacy group, told Al Jazeera that it contained content that resembled anti-Muslim propaganda circulated across the country, in some cases, prior to outbreaks of violence.

“If you take a population of Buddhists in various parts of the country that already feel, whether it’s unreasonable or not, that their culture and their religion are under threat, and then if you take that sensibility and you layer on top allegations that Muslims are going to incite riots or perpetrate violence against Buddhist populations, this could have the effect of inciting widespread violence,” said Smith.

“In fact, we’ve seen similar situations like this in other parts of the country as well. In Rakhine state, there were a number of pamphlets being distributed before the widespread violence in June 2012 and October 2012, indicating that Muslims were taking land, raping women, posing a threat to the Buddhist religion and to Myanmar’s national sovereignty.

“These types of allegations of existential threats against Buddhism and Buddhists are being used to incite violence in the country against Muslims.”

Media hate speech

Al Jazeera can also reveal that the public was also being subjected to a more subtle form of propaganda. Two speeches by monks on state-owned channels, MRTV-4 and Myawady, beamed into the homes of the country’s Buddhist majority as the religious crisis continued.

State officials are laying the groundwork for further discrimination and violence

by Matthew Walton, Myanmar expert at Oxford University

One of those broadcasts was a lecture given in October 2012, entitled “The Voice of One who has freed themselves from the Jaws of a Tiger,” in which monks stood by while a Buddhist woman recounted experiences of monstrous abuse at the hands of her Muslim ex-husband.

In the film, the clerics address the audience, encouraging them have no dealings with their Muslim counterparts.

In 2014, a broadcast on Myawady, a military-owned but publicly available channel, featured a monk’s sermon in which he rehearsed a virtually identical account of Muslim abuse.

Matthew Walton, Myanmar expert at Oxford University’s St Anthony College, says there is symmetry between the government documents in the film and broader anti-Muslim propaganda in Myanmar.

The evidence, he told Al Jazeera, “paints a … picture of the coordination in messaging” between parts of the government and practitioners of hate speech.

“By reinforcing these messages that demonise Muslims, state officials are laying the groundwork for further discrimination and violence, not only legitimised by religious authorities, but now also by political ones.”

Al Jazeera has made several requests for comment to the Myanmar President’s office and government spokespeople but has not received any responses.

Source: Al Jazeera