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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 10-11   01-31 October 2014

Sectarian Violence in Myanmar Threatens Livelihood of Muslims

Philip Heijmans

MANDALAY, Myanmar — It has been more than a month since Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, was rocked by deadly anti-Muslim riots. Broken windows and large dents in the facades of a dozen small Muslim-run businesses are the only visible reminders of when about 300 radical Buddhists rode into town wielding swords and bricks, killing two people.

Less visible are the economic scars. But Myanmar’s Muslim community says politically charged anti-Muslim speech and widespread sectarian violence are threatening their livelihoods. “We were closed for a whole week, so there was no income,” said Mama Gyi, a 56-year-old Muslim who owns a bike rental and convenience store in Mandalay. “I usually make about $300 per month, but now there are not many tourists, so I can only rent out a couple of bikes per day. I am only making about 20 percent of what I was.”

Muslim traders and businessmen have been a major part of the country’s economy since colonial times and the rule of the British East India Company. Today, they make up about 5 percent of the population, with many earning their income from small, family-run businesses.

Aung, a Muslim who owns a medical supplies firm in Mandalay, said fears of more flare-ups had chased away customers and businesses alike. “Some of the bigger companies had their businesses transferred to other districts,” said Aung, who asked to be identified by his first name only, for fear of retribution. “But still there is a risk, since we do not know who is out there, and we do not want to get spotted while outside of Mandalay. We have to be careful about maintaining our businesses.”

He said many shop owners moved with their families to Shan State, in the country’s northeast, while others moved to the outskirts of Mandalay. Residents in Mandalay also said the police had blocked off streets where many Muslim shops were located after the rioting. The blockade is now gone, but a heavy police presence remains. Muslim business owners said they had lost anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of their income, which at $300 to $1,000 a month can be the difference between just getting by and poverty.

Larger companies have faced resistance as well. The Qatar-based telecommunications operator Ooredoo, which introduced services in Myanmar on Aug. 15, has been the subject of anti-Muslim protests and a smear campaign in social media because of the company’s roots in a Muslim country. In May, anti-Muslim nationalists led by Buddhist monks protested in Mandalay, calling for a full boycott of Ooredoo in Myanmar.

Although several monasteries started their own boycotts, there has been no widespread spurning of Ooredoo, which said it had signed up more than a million customers in its first month. Sectarian violence, both against Muslims and the Rohingya minority, is growing worse in other parts of Myanmar, particularly in the states of Rakhine, on the country’s west coast, and Kachin, in the northeast.

“Sectarian violence is affecting the Muslim Rohingya business community on every scale from small businesses to the bigger companies. There has been no resolving the problem, and the situation is getting worse and worse as Muslims are suffering every day,” said Khin Maung Myint, a Muslim Rohingya and an executive member of the National Democratic Party for Development, a political party defending the rights of Muslims.

Since anti-Muslim violence started in 2012, he said, hundreds of thousands of the estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million Rohingya have fled the country, with another 150,000 winding up in camps. As many as 80 percent of Muslim businesses in Rakhine State were affected by the violence, particularly in the state’s capital, Sittwe.

“Businesses owned by Muslims were looted by Rakhine extremists, and many are now closed, especially in Sittwe,” he said, adding that more than 300 Muslim-owned shops at Myo Ma market, the town’s largest, were quickly abandoned in 2012. In Mandalay, where a curfew was imposed after the July riots, the locally owned Golden Myanmar Airlines said evening flights, which often departed around the curfew time of 9 p.m., were only 30 percent full before the curfew was lifted in August. That has begun to improve, but only slightly, airline officials said.

“Immediately after the riots, we had some full flights because people were all trying to leave town,” said Hlene Zar, the Golden Myanmar Airlines branch manager. “Then came the curfew, and we had a hard time getting customers for the evening flights, because people were too scared to break the curfew.”

Over the last three years, Myanmar has undergone an economic transformation. The government has awarded foreign companies landmark concessions of its untapped oil reserves and telecommunications spectrum, estimated to be worth billions of dollars. As a result, foreign direct investment has risen to $4.1 billion in the latest fiscal year, up from $1.4 billion the year before, according to the Myanmar Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. The International Monetary Fund has said Myanmar’s economy is poised to grow 8.5 percent this year, a slight increase from 8.25 percent a year earlier.

Although there has been no noticeable drop in foreign investment so far, continued sectarian violence throughout the country could change that, at a pivotal point in the country’s development, experts say. Cyn-Young Park, an assistant chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, said religious tension was a “grave concern” for parts of the economy.

“In Myanmar, where there is large investment need, it affects foreign investor sentiment and can limit F.D.I.,” Mr. Park said, referring to foreign direct investment. “Tourism can generate substantial economic gains for Myanmar, but international visitors are largely confined to the central parts of the country even now, due to security reasons.” Myanmar’s $926 million tourism sector is feeling the effects, but mainly in areas hit by violence, said Oliver Esser Soe Thet, the president of the Myanmar Chefs’ Association and a hotelier. He added that the problem was especially prominent in Rakhine State.

After as many as 6,000 tourists visited in 2011, the number traveling to the archaeologically significant town of Mrauk U, known for its historic Buddhist shrines, or stupas, has dwindled to hundreds, he said. When the riots started, the violence caused tourist numbers at Ngapali beach, considered one of most beautiful in the country, to fall to 14,000 — a drop of about 50 percent. The numbers have since rebounded and are on pace for about 20,000 this year.

Underscoring the impact of the violence, Yangon, the country’s main city, which has been largely unaffected by unrest, welcomed 817,000 tourists in 2013, a 46 percent increase from the year before. The government believes that continued violence could threaten the country as a whole, said the deputy information minister and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut.

“Communal violence is a big challenge for Myanmar — not only for foreign investment — but also for the stability of the country and Myanmar society,” he said by email. Muslims said they were uncertain whether the situation would improve soon. Standing behind the display case in her father’s glasses store in Mandalay, a 43-year-old shopkeeper, who asked to be called by her nickname, Honey, for fear of retribution if the rioters returned, said that eventually things would have to get better.

“One day, the people will understand each other and understand what it is to be Muslim,” she said.

(Source: The New York Times, September 28, 2014)

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