Burma’s Religious Civil War

Graeme Wood reports from Burma, whose glasnost has done little to ease the plight of its Rohingya Muslims:

[O]n the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s Great Unclenching is a beautiful thing. The Burma I first visited in 1998 was a snakepit of secret police and muzzled dissent. But last fall, I heard people openly express love for the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition, Burma Muslims face Buddhist FuryNobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. On every street corner, kiosks sold dozens of vibrant tabloids free from routine censorship. Burma’s economic isolation once forced foreign visitors to pack in bundles of crisp hundred-dollar bills. Now brand-new ATMs disgorge money just like in Paris or Buenos Aires.

But Arakan state looked a lot better when things were still clenched.

Muslims and Buddhists who recently lived with each other peacefully now squat on opposite sides of barbed-wire fences and plot each other’s elimination. Old women and children too infirm to run from raiding parties have been speared or beaten to death in their homes. The fortunate ones are fleeing to other countries on overladen, leaky boats. In Sittway, the state capital, Buddhists have surrounded the old Muslim quarter, starving its residents into submission. “It’s a concentration camp,” a diplomat in Rangoon told me.

The U.S. government has sent diplomats to monitor Arakan, and at key junctures in the blossoming of bilateral relations, Obama has brought up the Rohingya issue. But the Rohingya are, so far, unlucky casualties of progress, and their ongoing ethnic-cleansing hasn’t been enough to sour Obama’s rapport with the Burmese president, Thein Sein. Nor, it seems, has it managed to stir the outrage of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose lack of comment has made activists, once piously reverent, now treat her as something between demoness and fool.

(Photo: In March 2013 in the he city of Meiktila, Muslims were attacked by Buddhist extremists. Khaing Thinzar Oos, aged 23, holds a photograph of her younger brother, who was murdered in the violence. The waves of anti-Muslim violence has paralyzed Burma and threatens the democratization of the country. By Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)