- - 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.

Clashes spread to central Myanmar in March, killing 40 people on both sides and leaving thousands more Muslims homeless.

On May 10, a court imprisoned 10 Buddhist men in Rakhine, with sentences ranging from nine months to three years, because they destroyed Muslims’ homes.

In neighboring Buddhist-majority Thailand, meanwhile, a quest to control potentially lucrative territory and enact Islamic Shariah laws is inspiring Muslim guerrillas to fight for autonomy or independence in the south.

More than 5,000 people have died in the fighting since 2004.

Muslims form a majority in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces and complain of discrimination and injustice under Bangkok’s rule.

The government’s National Security Council recently began talks with some Islamist insurgents, but the two sides continue to fight.

Rebels of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and separatists of the allied Barisan National Revolution gave Bangkok officials five demands on April 28.

These included amnesty for all southern insurgents.

The increasingly sophisticated rebels are using assassinations, arson and homemade bombs to kill Thai troops, Buddhist monks, businessmen, teachers, civilians and Muslim informants.

Foreign civil rights advocates have accused Thailand’s U.S.-trained troops of illegal executions, torture and other abuses of Muslim activists and rebels.

Nearby on the tiny island of Sri Lanka, southwest from Myanmar and Thailand, minority Muslims are threatened by Buddhist monks, who are primarily from the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

A new Sri Lankan group called the Buddhist Force demands an island-wide boycott of Muslim businesses and demolition of a 10th-century mosque in Kuragala that it claims sits on the site of an ancient Buddhist monastery.

On May 5, Sri Lanka briefly detained opposition politician Azath Sally, leader of the Muslim National Unity Alliance, after he accused the government of supporting Buddhists who set fire to Muslim-owned businesses in March.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, blamed Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka for attacking Muslims.

“Killing people in the name of religion is really very sad, unthinkable,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said in a U.S. lecture at the University of Maryland last week. “Buddhist monks … destroy Muslim mosques or Muslim families. Really very sad.”

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