Anti-Muslim tension simmers ahead of Myanmar election

By Ivan Watson and Manny Maung, CNN

Updated 0223 GMT

Meiktila, Myanmar (CNN)—It has been more than been two years since this town in Myanmar burned with the fires of deadly violence. Look closely, and there are haunting scars left behind.

The shells of mosques still stand — torched, looted and overgrown with lush vegetation.

Local authorities have boarded up other mosques that weren’t seriously damaged in mob violence by Meiktila’s Buddhist majority against the Muslim minority. They did not answer reporters’ questions about why.

At least 44 people were killed in days of clashes in April 2013 after a dispute erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in a market here, according to official figures.

Asked if the violence could explode again, a local Buddhist monk named U Wie Douktah answered with a wry smile, “There’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

In an overwhelmingly Buddhist country where angry anti-Muslim rhetoric is becoming increasingly part of mainstream discourse, U Wie Douktah is a symbol of tolerance.

In the spasm of violence 2½ years ago, the 57-year old abbot and his disciples provided sanctuary to more than 900 Muslims on the grounds of their monastery.

When a machete-wielding mob showed up in the middle of the night demanding the monks hand over the families, U Wie Douktah refused. He and his acolytes stood guard at the gates until dawn.

“He saved people’s lives, so it’s really, really important,” said U Aung Thein, a Muslim lawyer, who sat at the abbot’s feet at the end of October during a meeting at the monastery with other Muslim community leaders.

The monk dismissed recent religious tensions as artificial.

“It’s all political,” he said. “There are actually no problems between the religious communities themselves. But it has been influenced by political groups.”

Ultranationalist monks

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is roughly 90% Buddhist, the CIA World Factbook estimates.

Popular passion for the faith was on display in the second-largest city of Mandalay in late October when crowds thronged pagodas and temples lighting candles to celebrate the Full Moon Festival, the Buddhist holiday known as Thadingyut.

And yet some powerful clerical voices insist Buddhism is in danger in this country.

In an interview with CNN, a monk named U Wirathu did not hesitate to name what he said is the No. 1 threat to his faith: Muslims.

“Their law requires Buddhist women who marry into their religion must convert (to Islam),” he said. “They take many wives and they have many children. And when their population grows they threaten us.

“And,” he concluded, “they are violent.”

U Wirathu is a founder of an ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement called the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, known locally as Ma Ba Tha.

The movement disseminates leaflets and sermons in which U Wirathu calls for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, even though according to the last official census Muslims make up around 4% of the country’s population.

“Where the Muslims live, their mosques flourish,” U Wirathu told CNN.

“They have a monopoly on business,” he added, “and they don’t allow other Buddhist businesses to grow.”

In Myanmar, it is a cultural and religious taboo to criticize Buddhist monks.

But some observers suggest the hardline positions of U Wirathu and his colleagues have poisoned the atmosphere to the extent that the two largest parties in the country have chosen not to run any Muslim candidates for parliament in the upcoming election.

“They have shunned Muslim candidates,” said U Aung Thein, the Muslim lawyer in Meiktila.

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