- - Thursday, May 16, 2013

BANGKOK — Buddhists and Muslims are clashing with increasing ferocity in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, where minority Islamic ethnic groups blame racism by majority Buddhists more than religious intolerance.

“It is like the KKK in America during the period of the civil rights movement,” said Myo Win, a Muslim activist based in Yangon, Myanmar, comparing recent deadly attacks by Buddhists in his Southeast Asian country with the Ku Klux Klan, whose white-robed thugs terrorized blacks during the 1960s.

“We are really afraid,” Myo Win told a recent Bangkok conference titled “Violence in the Name of Buddhism.”

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the powerful military and civilian government doesn’t accept 800,000 minority Muslims as citizens.

Myanmar insists they are illegal ethnic immigrants from impoverished Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The Muslims describe themselves as indigenous ethnic Rohingya in western Rakhine state.

“There is some kind of internally racist” propaganda voiced against “darker-skinned” Muslims by politicians and other Buddhists, Maung Zarni, a Myanmar Buddhist and human rights activist, told the conference.

Buddhists in Rakhine complain they are losing their land to Muslims, whom some call more “hardworking and thrifty” than the Buddhists, he added.

“This is not about which god they are worshipping,” he said. “There is an issue of bread and butter here, a very clear economic dimension.”

A nationwide Buddhist campaign known as “969” — symbolic Buddhist numbers — also rouses followers to boycott Muslim-owned businesses.

It warns that Islam soon will dominate Myanmar, despite Muslims making up only 5 percent of the population of 52 million.

The 969 campaign is led by a Mandalay-based Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, 45. He persuades countless Buddhist shops to display his stickers and listen to his speeches on DVDs.

Hatred turned into bloodshed last year when Buddhist mobs killed 140 Muslims and torched their homes. About 30 Buddhists were killed, and 120,000 fled their homes during the attacks in June and October.

“Burmese officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic [Buddhists] — backed by state security forces — to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in April.

Myanmar dismissed the group’s findings

“We don’t need to pay attention to any such reports as the Human Rights Watch,” said Myanmar’s deputy information minister, Ye Htut.

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