Self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” and extreme nationalist monk, Wirathu, appeared on the front cover of the July issue of TIME’s Asia edition under the title “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” While this move galvanized a range of reactions here in the United States, those in Burma never even got to see it.
On June 26, the Burmese government announced that it was banning the distribution of the July 1 edition of TIME because of its controversial cover. The Central Management Committee for Emergency Periods claims that “…TIME’s coverage can cause misunderstandings and jeopardize the interfaith trust-building that the government is trying to implement.” Although this statement sounds well-intentioned, and even constructive in the development of Burma, a careful look into the history and recent events of the conflict in Burma reveals otherwise.
According to the most recent Human Rights Watch report, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma have been on the rise since June 2012. Though individuals on both sides have since contributed to the continued sectarian violence—the overwhelming majority of violent acts have been committed by Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims.
Currently, more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims have been displaced because of the destruction of their villages by Buddhist monks, resulting in a lack of their basic human rights such as adequate food, shelter, water, sanitation and medical care. Evidence suggests that even the the authorities, including the security forces and police, are complicit in these attacks, destroying mosques, blocking aid to displaced Muslims and instituting a two-child policy for Rohingya Muslims.
The issue of the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world and denied citizenship according to Burmese law, is a unique one concentrated in western Burma. But it is tied to a broader and growing anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country, one that led in March to a massacre of school children in the town of Meiktila in central Burma. Though Muslims make up only between 4-8% of the population in Burma, agitators like Wirathu paint them as an existential threat to Burmese Buddhist society.
Given the evidence of anti-Muslim violence in Burma, one would think that Wirathu and the Burmese government would not be surprised by the cover of TIME. Indeed, Wirathu has said he is “proud to be called a radical Buddhist,” yet both have decried TIME’s depiction.
The explanation seems to lie amongst the rest of Burma’s paradoxes. Wirathu calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden,” leading the movement against Muslims in Burma, yet also refers to himself as “a man of peace.”. Additionally, the Burmese government claims that they banned the TIME’s article for the sake of peace; yet, the government has directly contributed to the institutional discrimination faced by Rohingya Muslims. Finally, Burma claims to have abolished media censorship last year, yet somehow deems it credible to forbid the distribution of TIME.
Our own government continues to reward Burma for its supposed reforms (i.e. abolishing media censorship) by cutting back on sanctions. However, continued action is needed to prevent anti-Muslim violence in Burma from erupting into a full-blown genocide. Contact President Obama and demand that the U.S. take immediate action to stop the violence in Burma now.