Photo courtesy of the CJMyanmar Facebook page.
After leading some of the largest demonstrations against Burma’s former military junta in 2007, hundreds of Buddhist monks have once again taken to the streets in protest. Yet instead of marching to demand greater freedoms, they are demonstrating in support of President Thein Sein’s recent proposal to either deport members of the country’s minority Rohingya Muslim community, or send them to camps.
The demonstration follows months of unrest in the country’s western Rakhine state between the region’s ethnic Buddhist communities and the Rohingya. Violence first broke out in June, after a Buddhist woman was raped and then killed, allegedly by Muslims. Outraged by the crime, a local mob attacked a bus, beating 10 Muslims to death in the process. Since then, Rakhine state has been plagued by periodic clashes between the two groups, which have left at least 90 people dead, according to an official estimate. Human rights group fear, however, that the death toll could be much higher.
In response to the mounting violence in Rakhine state, Burma’s government launched an investigation into the violence in the region. While Thein Sein in part blamed Buddhist monks and other ethnic Rakhine figures for inciting hatred against the Rohingya in a parliamentary report last month, he also echoed past comments, in which he said that the minority group was not welcome within Burma’s borders, and that the only “solution” was to either deport or send them to camps.
Sign reads: "Protect mother Myanmar by supporting the president". Photo courtesy of the CJMyanmar Facebook page.
Rallying behind the president’s plan, hundreds of Buddhists and other demonstrators gathered in Mandalay on September 2, holding up signs that read “Protect mother Myanmar by supporting the president”.
According to the UN, there are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims currently living in Burma. Many in the country refer to them as “Bengalis”, because they speak a regional dialect of Bengali. The Rohingya, however, are stateless. Claiming centuries of lineage in Rakhine state, Rohinhya activists have long petitioned for Burmese citizenship, to no avail. This means they have little access to education or health care and face travel restrictions. 

“It’s a question of justice”

U Wirathu led the anti-Rohingya protests in Mandalay on Sunday, September 2.
We decided to hold the protest for three reasons. First off, we wanted the world to know that the Rohingya are not among the 135 different ethnic groups that are recognised in Burma. We also wanted to make sure everyone knew that we, as Burmese people, do not condone their acts of violence. Lastly, we wanted to highlight the importance of border security, by pointing out the fact that there have been some on the western border [which runs along Bangladesh] in the past who were not concerned with Rakhine’s security and did their job carelessly.
We have lived peacefully among different religions and ethnicities for years. But we now have these illegal Bengali immigrants demanding to be recognised as a native ethnic group and asking to be granted citizenship. We want people to know the truth, that the Rohingya are not Burmese and that they are not a peaceful group. If they lived quietly, we would allow them to stay regardless of the fact they entered the country illegally.
It’s not that we want all immigrants, illegal or not, to leave Burma. There are a lot of illegal Chinese immigrants here too, but the difference is that they just go about their own business. They’re not trying to swallow native tribes and colonise the country, or destroy our religion. [Burma’s entire Muslim population makes up 4 percent of the population.]

“It’s a little ironic that the monks don’t see the inherent human rights issues”

Kio (not his real name), is a former Burmese pro-democracy activist who has just returned to the country after living in exile for many years.
When it comes down to it, it’s really a religious issue. Our people are not used to human rights issues, so they don’t care much about it. But when it comes to religion, it’s a big deal. A lot of people believe that Islam is against Buddhism, and some monks see it almost as an enemy.
There’s a lot of popular support for the protests, partly because the monks are so respected, but also because President Thein Sein [who was elected president of Burma’s new civilian government in 2011] is heading up a number of reforms in the country, and people want to support him. There’s also a lot of misinformation about what’s going on in Rakhine state. For the most part, the public have been given only one side of the story: that the Rakhine people have suffered the most and at the hands of the Rohingya.
It’s a little ironic that the monks don’t see the human rights issues inherent to the situation. But in our country, there is a lot of discomfort with Islam. There is a fear that Burma will be ‘Islamafied’. But in reality, Islam has peacefully coexisted with us for a long time.