When I leave my little island paradise and venture into the Big City, I drive through the small not-even town of Rosewood, Florida. Rosewood was the site of an American version of ethnic cleansing. Rosewood sits in Levy County, Florida, and in its original form existed as a black community along the Seaboard Coastline Railway. One night, back in 1923, accusations started floating around that a black drifter had raped a local white woman. So the local white men folk went and lynched an innocent black man from Rosewood. The black people in Rosewood stood to defend themselves. The white folk burned Rosewood to the ground, forcing the black population into hiding in the local swamps, and killing six. Rosewood was abandoned, and not spoken of again until the 1980s. Twice a day I drive through this spot of ethnic violence, and twice a day I think of Myanmar.
How many of you know what is currently happening in Myanmar? Or, call it Burma if you would like.
The average American might not know much about this Southeast Asian state, and in truth that is understandable. Myanmar spent most of the last half century isolated from outside contact. It never makes US news, except that one time monks protested and that other time the cyclone hit and the dictatorship wouldn’t accept US aid. A site of rich ancient cultural heritage, it was a British colony back in the day. In March of 1962, General Ne Win led the army in a coup d’etat. For around the next fifty years, Burma existed as a closed military dictatorship. However, that is the past! Myanmar has such a bright future!
In 2008, a referendum on the Burmese constitution set up a path to democracy. In 2010, elections were held. Now, these were not exactly fair elections and there was fraud, but baby steps. The election set the government on a path of reforms, the most famous being the release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest (after 20 years). The government has opened the economy, relaxed restrictions on the press, and allowed unions to exist. A National Human Rights Commission was even established, though no one seems quite sure what to do about the Karen or the KNU.
But back to why Rosewood makes me think of Myanmar. In 2012, in Rakhine state, allegedly a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by a Rohingya Muslim man. To begin with, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and have been refused all rights of citizenship. So, as you can imagine, this incident (accusations of a hated minority attacking the women folk of the majority) set off riots that eventually killed 78 people. The government attempted to crack down and get things under some semblance of control, but the violence spread across the country and is still continuing today. Buddhist against Muslim violence has displaced over 90,000 people. Recently, the violence reached the outskirts of Okkan (one of Burma’s largest cities) with Buddhist torching Muslim homes. Rangoon just saw an outburst of violence in which mosques and homes were destroyed.
Buddhist violence? Against Muslims?
Yes. It is a classic example of majority vs minority. The Rohingya make up around 7% of the population, and are a small, peaceful minority. However, they have long been denied any rights, and some outside observers have accused the Myanmar government of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. As a long persecuted minority, the Rohingya serve as a convenient scapegoat for all ills. Add in the preachings of Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who is known as the Burmese Bin Laden. His organization, the 969, have been known to perpetrate and incite acts of anti-Muslim violence. The 969 propagates the idea the Buddhism is essential to the identity of the nation, and that the Muslims are unwanted outsiders that threaten the social fabric.
It is really not much different from every argument a majority makes against a minority. The philosophy that drives monks to torch the homes of Muslims is very similar to the philosophy that drove the Levy County whites to torch Rosewood. Drive out the outsider. The fact that the perpetrators of the violence are Buddhist may seem at first surprising, but like all religions, Buddhism can give followers a sense of the moral rightness of their views, which must be protected and furthered at all costs.
This is a conflict that deserves more attention. It is something that I plan to learn more about.
For the latest on Myanmar, read http://www.irrawaddy.org/
Elizabeth Karle is currently majoring in Political Science and Statistics, with a minor in African studies, at the University of Florida. For tweets on Africa, security, foreign policy, and snark follow @eakarle. You can also read her blog at http://subsaharanroundup.blogspot.com/