Pull the puppet strings: Muslim-Buddhist violence in Mandalay

I finally got to reading an excellent report out by the Justice Trust, entitled Hidden Hands Behind Communal Violence in Myanmar: Case Study of the Mandalay Riots. It presents a compelling analysis as to the origins of the riot violence that gripped Mandalay in July 2014, affecting both Muslim and Buddhist communities.

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Some thoughts on Arakan State’s bloodshed

Translation: Do not support Burma’s 786 [expletive] Indian stores and oppose the Rohingya Indians.

This past week, my Facebook newsfeed has been bombarded by photos, pictures, slogans and status updates all centered around the Buddhist-Muslim killings in Burma’s Arakan State. To be sure, I’ve been caught off guard by the openly racist remarks espoused by family and friends. It’s no secret that the community viewed most suspiciously by the Burmese are the Muslims, even though they’re deeply woven in the country’s social fabric (for instance, some Burmese spirits were Muslims or of Muslim descent, explaining the pork taboo). Also, I believe that Burma’s religious composition figures are inaccurate. I wouldn’t be surprised if upwards of 10% of the country are Muslims.

Considering that Arakan State is in Burma’s periphery, far from the country’s heartland, it’s not surprising that accurate news accounts have been especially hard to come by. I hate reading Burmese language media on situations like this because it is so openly intent on portraying one side of the story, just as exile media is. And English language media is no better. Different accounts have made their rounds throughout the Burmese community.

Basically, the rape and murder of a woman by 3 men (presumably Muslim) triggered the onset of the violence. (Also, I think it’s despicable that images of dead victims have been making their rounds in the Burmese community to further their case. It’s low.) Vigilantes from the Arakanese community then attacked a tour bus of (mostly) Muslim passengers from Pegu (raping and killing a woman as well. Tit for tat?). This set off intense violence in districts especially near the Burmese-Bangladeshi border, between Muslims and Buddhists. I won’t delve into the identity of Rohingyas (also called Bengali migrants by Burmese media), because it’s a complicated issue. But it’s sure stoked up the tensions in the country. There’s a comprehensive write up on New Mandala. (The comments are worth a look as well.)

Some arguments have portrayed this issue as one of immigration (illegal squatters wreaking havoc in Burma), but there’s certainly a streak of racism and Islamophobia written all over netizens’ comments. Many simply don’t distinguish race and religion. A lot of arguments defending the violence have been centered around “protecting” the indigenous womenfolk from Muslims. The rape and murder case produced tremendous backlash, even though systematic rapes and murders frequently occur in Burma’s war-ravished areas. That Burmese (and ethnic) soldiers have been documented to rape and murder ethnic women (Shan, Karen and Kachin women and girls, among others) has not been condemned in the scale we see today. The Burmese have never expressed such outrage against these war crimes. It’s obvious that a double standard exists. Indeed, last year, when a Japanese tourist was raped and murdered by a Burmese man, many Burmese blamed the victim for compromising herself (by travelling alone). Comments like these make me want to facepalm myself.

I can’t help but imagine that there’s more to the violence than what we see. Perhaps the military is taking advantage of this situation, to conjure up the idea of a Burmese state in perpetual need of a iron-fisted military presence. As the “civilian” government consolidates power, the military needs to remain relevant to survive. Some Burmese have pointed out that the Muslims in Arakan State may have been provoked by the government (maybe plainclothes vigilantes, who knows).

P.S. Some Burmese of South Asian descent protested the usage of the Burmese word kala (ကုလား) in state newspapers, on the argument that it’s a racial slur used to refer to South Asians (and perhaps its similarity to the the word “black” in some Indian languages and/or that it sounds similar to Burmese “cross over”, emphasizing South Asians’ non-native origins).

However, I think much of this is hullabaloo. Up to the 1800s, kala encompassed most Indo-European peoples west of Burma (including Europeans and South Asians), the same way Tayoke or Chinese referred to peoples north of Burma. Kala has been used in a neutral context for centuries. The fact that we Burmese still call Thais yodaya (a reference to the Ayutthaya kingdom, destroyed by the Burmese in the 1600s) makes kala seem innocuous by comparison. (Not that I’m saying the Burmese use yodaya as a slur or a reminder of the past. It’s just a descriptive word, nothing else.) Interestingly enough, in Cambodia, Kula refers to refers to Burmese settlers, particularly descendants of the Shan peoples, who settled in Pailin province to mine gems (definition from the Cambodian-English Dictionary).

There’s a pretty solid argument for the etymology of kala (“(Mis)interpretations of the Burmese word kala”), replete with references and footnotes, that essentially argues that kala comes from one of these sources:

  1. Pali kulaputta (ကုလပုတ္တ, noble race)
  2. Mon gla (ဂလာ, noble race), perhaps borrowed from Pali
  3. cola/chola (a historical name for the Tamil/Telegu people)

Al-Qaeda connections to Burma?

Minaret and Mosque on Sule Pagoda Road, Rangoon

Minaret of a mosque in the background, Sule Pagoda Road, in Rangoon.

Burma seems like an unlikely safe haven for extremist terrorists. Its society is tightly controlled, with many residents forced to notify their village headmen of any guests for merely staying the night (in 2005, after a small explosion in front of the Traders Hotel in Rangoon, the government clamped down and restricted travel and lodging for citizens and required residents of some townships to post a family portrait in front of their home to ensure nobody was hiding.)

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Stigmas of being Indian and Muslim

Politically correct: 'Eindiya Gayha' instead of 'Kala Gayha', both of which mean "India House" in Burmese. I think the India House is the residence of the Indian ambassador to Burma.

The recent Economist article (“Unlikely sanctuary”) on Burmese Muslims living in Yunnan, China inspired me to write about the rampant discrimination Indians, and in particular, Indian Muslims face in Burma.

Kala is a commonly-used Burmese term to describe Indians or Indian-looking people. According to a Burmese dictionary, the term comes from Pali. However, despite the term’s popularity, it is seen as derogatory among the Indian community. (In official contexts, the term kala has been phased out in favor of Burmese equivalents of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, similar to how Yodaya, the Burmese term for Thai is being replaced by Htaing in Burmese). The offensive term kala has become a root word, suffixing or prefixing many Burmese words like “chair” (kala-htaing).

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