It started with the allegation of a rape.
A Buddhist woman, Phyu Phyu Min, filed a police report in Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, charging that two Muslim co-workers raped her. Before long, a local website picked the story up.
“It started from a website called Thit Htoo Lwin with a story that a cook from a house was raped by two brothers,” says, Maung Maung, a local Muslim leader.
It wasn’t until a prominent Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu published the claim on his Facebook page that the allegations went viral. Wirathu, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, wrote this subject line: “The Mafia is Spreading and Coming to Town.”
The consequences were lethal.
Within 24 hours, on July 1st, 2014, angry Buddhist mobs armed with sticks, knives, and torches marched through the streets of Mandalay. They circled the local mosque, Muslim-owned businesses, and the teashop where the accused worked .
“There were motorcades and shouting, ‘Kill the Kalars.’ Kalars means Muslims,” says Samar Nyinyi, a Muslim civic leader who witnessed the violence. “Folks from the cars spit on Muslims openly in the daytime and after that, folks came with swords and spears.”
One Buddhist and one Muslim man were killed in the ensuing two days of violence, dozens were injured, Muslim shops ransacked, and a mosque badly burned.
But the original allegation of rape that seemingly incited the violence – the one that Wirathu posted on his Facebook page – was part of a carefully orchestrated lie.
The rape never happened.
“Rumours create conflicts”
A couple had paid Phyu Phyu Min to open the rape case at the behest of a business rival of the accused Muslim brothers, said the English-language Irrawaddy magazine, quoting the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“They paid her,” says Thein Than Oo, who was an appellate lawyer in a related court case. “They said, ‘Make an accusation like this. We’ll pay you,’ and asked her to do that.”
Phyu Phyu Min’s husband was in prison for drug offences and she needed the money, according to reports.
She later rescinded her original rape allegation.
“Rumours are great for creating conflicts,” says one Burmese journalist and former political prisoner who witnessed the riots.
“The government announced that the rape case in Sun Cafe did not take place at all. The government provided evidence for that. The government itself said that it wasn’t true. It said the report was fabricated.”
This is not the first time allegations of rape have been used to incite communal violence in Myanmar.
Claiming that a Buddhist woman has been raped, an “honour crime” in the country, has become common to mobilise anti-Muslim mobs. These, in turn, often lead to retributive rape.
In June 2012, violent clashes broke out after a young Buddhist girl was allegedly raped and murdered by three Muslims. In retaliation, 10 Muslims were lynched. State media further stoked anti-Muslim sentiment by invoking the derogatory word “kalar” in their coverage. Deadly riots that followed left around 200 dead.
Later, human rights organisations documented widespread and systematic rape of Rohingya women by military and security forces.
In August 2013, a Muslim man was arrested for the attempted rape of a Buddhist woman. Eye-witnesses said they were arguing but denied he tried to rape her. When police refused to hand him over to Buddhist mobs, they burned down Muslim homes and shops.
Al-Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has now found strong evidence that these riots were planned.
In many of these cases, Facebook was used as a vehicle to publicise the unverified rape allegation. Since Facebook became legal in Myanmar, after the country emerged from military rule in 2010, its popularity has not only spiked but also gave rise to a new era of hate speech.
But anti-Muslim propaganda is not only spread online.
“Facebook is important, but they do have many other channels, including distributing pamphlets, VCD videos, and organising speeches in very rural villages,” says Wai Wai Nu, a young Rohingya activist.
“They now have a new channel called the ‘Dammah School’ – it’s like a Sunday school, and they are organising young people and kids from Buddhist society in many rural places and teaching them to hate other religions, that Muslims are the terrorists, they are rapists and they will invade your country.”
Under Myanmar penal code 1860, rape is illegal and requires a vigorous investigation.
But there’s a troubling trend in the country that puts the validity of these cases in jeopardy: Local leaders are using rape as a political tool to fuel religious and ethnic hatred.
Their actions are not only instigating communal violence, but are disempowering rape victims and, instead, giving a platform to those looking to spread hate.
Rape rarely prosecuted
“Nationalist monks are appealing to these irrational fears of the Buddhist population, and then adding in this layer – this idea that the Muslims are coming for our women,” says Matthew Smith, the cofounder of Fortify Rights , who has been documenting human rights abuses in the country for nearly 10 years.
“The tragic irony is that rape is a crime that’s rarely prosecuted in Myanmar, yet, it’s used to instigate violence against entire populations of people.”
Phyu Phyu Min is now in jail, serving a minimum 21-year sentence for fabricating the rape.
Wirathu is attempting to leverage fears of a Muslim takeover for political gain
Wirathu, the influential monk who played a role in sparking the resulting violence, still posts on Facebook.
Whipping up hatred has become a Wirathu trademark. He is a prominent figure in the Ma Ba Tha , a Buddhist monk-led organisation that commits itself to preserving the religion in Myanmar.
The group interprets Islam as a serious threat, working to pass discriminatory legislation while threatening those who promote interreligious harmony.
Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for hate speech that incited anti-Muslim riots. But since his release in 2010, he’s kept busy acquiring political power and military backing. President Thein Sein has even called him the “Son of the Lord Buddha”.
“This is the one thing that can truly make people commit truly horrific crimes – this existential threat,” says Smith. “He’s attempting to leverage fears of a Muslim takeover for political gain. He’ll incite people to violence, and he’s not being held accountable for it.”