ramadan

It's Getting Harder and Harder to Celebrate Ramadan in Myanmar

Buddhist hardliners forced two madrassas to shut down before the start of the Holy Month.
June 20, 2017, 10:20am
Photo by Soe Zeya Tun/ Reuters

It's been a rough Ramadan for Myanmar's Muslim minority. Hundreds of Muslims have been forced to hold prayers in the streets after a mob of Buddhist nationalists forcibly shuttered two madrassas in a Muslim neighborhood in Yangon while police and city officials stood powerless two months ago.

The madrassas, which are still closed, were accused of not having the proper permits to run a house of worship. One local Muslim, a man named Moe Zaw, now faces up to six months in prison for not obtaining the proper permits, according to Reuters. It's unclear when—or if—the madrassas will be allowed to reopen.

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"I feel deeply sad, as if the sky has fallen down," Chit Tin, a local Muslims, told the wire service.

The local community now holds Friday prayers in the streets after nearby mosques have been unable to absorb more than 1,000 new attendees.

A similar story was playing out in the city of Meikhtila, where local authorities have shut down three private homes that were used for Friday prayers after Buddhist mobs destroyed the city's mosques four years ago. Police have since been patrolling to city to make sure that no one else was holding prayers at their home, according to Reuters.

Myanmar has a long and troubled history with its Muslim minority population. Buddhist hardline nationalists, including members of the "Burmese Bin Laden" Ashin Wirathu's Ma Ba Tha group, have repeatedly targeted Muslim communities in bloody riots since violence began to boil over five years ago. Officially, about 4 percent of the country identify as Muslim, but unofficial estimates place that number at between 8 and 12 percent.

Buddhist ultra nationalists claim that these Muslims threaten the very fabric of the nation. They've called on the government to take steps to curb the birth of Muslim children, citing anti-Muslim laws in some cities that limit the birth of Rohingya Muslims. The ultra nationalists use not-so-coded language to paint Muslims as "terrorists," and "parasites," while claiming that Muslims are plotting to gain control of the country through high birth rates.

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"Jihadi Muslims want to overwhelm the country, so we have to protect it," one hardline monk told the Guardian. "The government has the responsibility to respect the rights of Buddhist citizens, too. But they're not doing this. That's why we have the full responsibility to protect our religion."

But these efforts to "protect Buddhism" often look a lot like mob violence. Last month, police had to shoot into the air to breakup a confrontation between Muslims and hardline Buddhists who were intent on raiding a Yangon apartment building they claimed was "illegally" providing shelter to Rohingya Muslims. Two were injured in the riot. Police later determined that no one was illegally living in the apartment building.

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi of turning a blind eye to the violence. "Burmese authorities and police have repeatedly shown they are unwilling to confront Buddhist ultra nationalists inciting violence against Muslims and other religious minorities," said Robert Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement on the closures.

"The government should immediately reverse these closures, end restrictions on the practice of minority religions, and prosecute Buddhist ultra nationalists who break the law in the name of religion," Robertson said.

Until then, Yangon's Muslim community will remain under the constant threat of mob violence. Those in the affected neighborhood said they spend 20 minutes walking to the nearest mosque. And even in communities not affected by this recent surge in anti-Muslim violence, building a new mosque to replace those that have been destroyed remains a remote possibility.

"It has been a long time since we have been able to build new mosques in this country," Kyaw Khin, head of a national Muslim group, told Human Rights Watch.