YANGON, Myanmar – Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and their supporters have forced the closing of two Muslim schools in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, in a reminder that religious strife remains a threat to the country’s stability.
About a dozen monks and scores of supporters gathered Friday afternoon near the two Muslim madrassas while police stood by as protesters demanded that local officials close the buildings. The raucous three-hour gathering ended when officials agreed to allow them to chain the entrances of the two buildings, which the protesters claim were built illegally.
Tensions between Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population and the Muslim minority spread after violent conflict broke out between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in 2012 in western Rakhine state, where the Rohingya are accused of entering the country illegally from Bangladesh.
It appeared that the madrassas were chained shut largely to appease the protesters and defuse tension, but it was unclear what their long-term fate would be.
“What happened today was very, very sad to me,” said Tin Shwe, a Muslim community leader. “I feel like they were bullying to our religious. This school has been built for like many years ago and all of our generations took care of it.”
A militant organization of Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha has spearheaded protests against Muslims. Its leaders have been accused of stirring up mob violence leading to the deaths of Muslims and destruction of their property around the country. Their movement surfaced latent prejudice against Muslims, and makes the nationalists a political force that cannot be ignored.
Most of the anti-Muslim activity has taken place outside of Yangon, the country’s most cosmoplitan city. In what seemed to be a coordinated campaign, anti-Muslim activists last year pressured local officials to have Muslim institutional buildings declared illegal and torn down. In some cases the activists occupied and dismantled the structures themselves.
Friday’s action against the madrassas was unusual because it occurred in Yangon, one of the rare times such forced closures have happened there.
The Ma Ba Tha movement had seemed to be in decline for the past few years, but the situation that fuelled its growth — the ethnic conflict in Rakhine state — remains unresolved.
More than 100,000 Muslim Rohingya live in squalid displacement camps where they were resettled after the 2012 violence. The government still refuses to grant citizenship to most of the estimated 1 million Rohingyas, even though in many cases, they have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Violence heated up late last year when a small armed Rohingya insurgency was launched, leading to massive retaliation by Myanmar’s army, which was accused of carrying out severe human rights violations.