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Myanmar’s Muslim Minority Confronts Fear and Mistrust

Summary:Night can be very dark in Yangon, a city where street lamps, when there are any, flicker on and off with the uneven electricity supply.
For a group of Muslim men guarding their neighborhood until dawn, it is never clear what is lurking down the potholed roads and alleyways.

“The government cannot guarantee our safety,” said U Nyi Nyi, a businessman who sat on a plastic chair with a half-dozen of the 130 men he has organized for an improvised Muslim neighborhood watch program.

After decades of peaceful coexistence with the Buddhist majority in the country, Muslims say they now constantly fear the next attack. Over the past year, they say several violent episodes across the country led by rampaging Buddhist mobs have taught them that if violence comes to their neighborhood, they are on their own.

“I don’t think the police will protect us,” Mr. Nyi Nyi said.

The neighborhood watch program, a motley corps of men who check for any suspicious outsiders and keep wooden clubs and metal rods stashed nearby, is a symbol of how much relations have deteriorated between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

About 90 percent of the country’s population of 55 million is Buddhist, with Muslims making up 4 to 8 percent.

Since British colonial days, Yangon, formerly Rangoon, has been a multicultural city where Buddhists live cheek by jowl with Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Mosques and Buddhist pagodas are literally in each other’s shadows.

Now fear and suspicion taint dealings between the two communities, Muslims say.

“We are losing trust with each other,” said U Aye, a Muslim used-car salesman. “Any business transaction between a Buddhist and a Muslim can turn into an incident.”

The root of the violence, which has left around 200 Muslims dead over the past year, appears partly a legacy of colonial years when Indians, many of them Muslims, arrived in the country as civil servants and soldiers, stirring resentment among Burmese Buddhists. In recent months radical monks have since built on those historic grievances, fanning fears that Muslims are having more children than Buddhists and could dilute the country’s Buddhist character.

So far, Yangon, which is by far the country’s largest city, has mainly escaped the violence. But there have been some minor clashes in the city that intensified worries here, fueling rumors about pending attacks in both the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Days after Buddhist mobs tore through the central city of Meiktila in March, two trucks filled with men showed up in Mr. Nyi Nyi’s neighborhood and hurled stones at the night watchmen with slingshots.

Some Muslims with means have fled to Malaysia or Singapore. Muslim-owned businesses are losing Buddhist customers. A growing Buddhist movement known as 969 that has the blessing of some of the country’s leaders is campaigning for a boycott of Muslim products and businesses and a ban on interfaith marriages.

The movement says it is not involved in violence, but critics say that, at the least, hate-filled sermons are helping to inspire the killings.

“This is the first time we experience this in our lifetime,” said U Maung Maung Myint, who runs an import-export company and is one of the trustees of the Bengali mosque, which is only a few hundred paces from a Buddhist pagoda, a Christian church and a Hindu temple. He was referring specifically to the mistrust between communities.

After a lifetime of feeling that he was Burmese, Mr. Maung Maung Myint said he felt “betrayed.” At least twice during the decades of military rule, Muslims joined protesters calling for political change, he said. “We marched in front of the American Embassy and chanted, ‘We want democracy!’ ” he said.

“We hoped our lives would be more peaceful — we didn’t expect this,” Mr. Maung Maung Myint said in an interview after Friday Prayer on the third floor of the mosque, which installed security cameras last year to guard against arson.

Myanmar is now ruled by a nominally civilian government, but new freedoms have amplified old animosities.

Much of the violence has made headlines inside the country and beyond. But smaller incidents have gone largely unreported. In one such case, a grocery store owned by U Khin Maung Htay, 59, was attacked in February by a Buddhist mob in Hlaing Thaya Township, directly across the Hlaing River from Yangon.

Mr. Khin Maung Htay was the headman of the neighborhood, and some of his Buddhist friends had warned him that trouble was brewing.

“I called police, but they said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no problem,’ ” Mr. Khin Maung Htay said.

When the Buddhist mob attacked, the police arrived, but left after failing to persuade the crowd to disperse, he said. Mr. Khin Maung Htay’s shop was destroyed, and everything inside was looted.

He fled his home and is now a refugee in his own city, crammed in a two-bedroom apartment in central Yangon with 22 other relatives.

He tried to return to the neighborhood, he said, but angry residents, some of them former customers, shouted abuse and threatened him.

“They said: ‘Go back to India! Go back to Bangladesh!’ ” Mr. Khin Maung Htay said.

The suggestion that Muslims leave the country has been a common refrain during the violence, which bewilders many Muslims who have always considered themselves Burmese. Mr. Khin Maung Htay, his father and his grandfather were all born in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Muslims are a diverse collection of ethnicities and appearances.

“We have a Myanmar lifestyle,” said U Maung Maung Myint, the owner of a desktop publishing business who is not related to the head of the import-export business. “We are Myanmar citizens. We went to Myanmar schools.”

Ninety percent of his customers were Buddhists, but early this year many of them stopped coming. It was the first time he had felt discrimination, he said.

Buddhists in Myanmar are often candid about their dislike for Muslims.

U Soe Nyi Nyi, the owner of a successful restaurant business that includes the flagship brand Feel, a popular chain in Yangon, said he generally avoided hiring Muslims because “there are so many differences — their attitude, their manners, their behavior.”

Among his 1,800 employees are only two Muslims, a parking attendant and a man who makes a type of Indian ice cream.

In real estate, Buddhist building owners do not want to sell apartments to Muslims, Mr. Soe Nyi Nyi said, adding, “If you sell one apartment to a Muslim family, all the prices in the building will go down. ”

U Myint Thein, who owns a business selling cooking-gas stoves imported from India, said he found it difficult to explain the violence to his children.

“I did my best to make sure they didn’t hear about these horrible things, but they heard,” he said. “I never thought about leaving this country before. But I don’t want my kids to live through more of this.”

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