A collaboration by journalists and photographers who work as correspondents in Asia

Lao’s Muslims Eye Burma

Lao’s Muslims Eye Burma

ASIAWATCH — Just over a decade ago the tiny Islamic population of Laos, like Muslims everywhere, watched on in horror as al-Qaeda carried out its suicide attacks on New York and Washington. They were then flabbergasted as a tide of Western opinion turned on them.

Luke Hunt reports.

As time passed the imams of Vientiane’s two mosques thought those days had been consigned to history, particularly in Southeast Asia, where al-Qaeda affiliates were dealt with and mostly dismantled.

But now both men are again looking on in horror at the treatment of Muslims, this time right next door in Myanmar, where close to 80 people have died in unrest between religions set off by the rape and murder in June of a Buddhist woman in Rakhine State in the west of the country. In retaliation, 10 Rohingya Muslims were lynched at the hands of an angry mob, and further attacks on Rohingya became widespread.

Muhammad Rafi, of the Jamia Mosque is an outspoken native Myanmar Rohingya, while Muhammad Vina bin Ahmad, a Cambodian Cham, is the imam of the Azhar Mosque and a little more reserved. But both are at a loss to comprehend why Muslims in Myanmar are bullied and bloodied by their countrymen and threatened with expulsion from their own country by a government that prefers not to grant them their sovereign rights and would like to see them leave.

“It’s a big, big problem,” said Mr Rafi with the help of a translator. “It’s no good and we’re not happy. We feel this because they are killing a lot of Muslims. No Muslim will be happy with this.”

He sits inside his mosque, flanked by two ultra-conservative Muslim Wahabis who are traditionally dressed in white. They are visitors from Saudi Arabia and  declined to give their names, saying only that they are tourists visiting regional countries. But they did say that Myanmar is ripe for international help.

A state of emergency was imposed in June across the state of Rakhine following the violence. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Myanmar authorities of shooting Muslims, committing rape and doing little more than standing by as mob attacks escalated.

Myanmar President Thein Sein made an already bad situation much worse by insisting the Rohingya in Myanmar are not his compatriots and, despite centuries of carrying  out their Islamic traditions in Myanmar, they should be placed under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and shipped to a third country.

This notion was rejected immediately by the United Nations and Washington.

It was decided at an Extraordinary Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference in Mecca to take the Rohingya issue before the UN because of the continued “recourse to violence by the Myanmar authorities against the members of this minority and their refusal to recognise their right to citizenship”.

Saudi Arabia has pledged US$50 million (1.57 billion baht) to aid the miserably impoverished Rohingya in Myanmar.

The 67-year-old Rafi still has family in Myanmar caught up in the trouble and he dismisses vague attempts by some Buddhist historians inside his native land who are attempting to rewrite history with claims the Rohingya never lived in Myanmar before the 1950s, a contrived argument used to deny them citizenship.

His family, mainly nieces and nephews, live in Palao in Rakhine state and have for generations. He says some have been forced to convert to Buddhism. Asked if a resolution can be found that would allow for a peaceful co-existence between Myanmar’s Muslims and Buddhists, he shakes his head and says: “No.”

That opinion was shared by the Wahabis and members of the Jamia congregation who had gathered around him.

HARMONIOUS FAITHS

Anti-Islamic hostilities in Myanmar stand in sharp contrast to the treatment of Muslims in Laos, who have citizenship and have found cultural acceptance in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.

Myanmar has about 800,000 Muslim Rohingya,  while Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand also have significant Muslim populations. Muslims in Laos are much smaller in number.

Mr Rafi’s congregation of 500-odd souls is an ethnic mix from North Africa and the Indian sub-continent whose ancestry for centuries made their living in Laos by trading in textiles or butchering meat for local restaurants.

Across town another 200 Muslim Chams thrive in a small industrial suburb. They began arriving here as refugees after April 1975, when the communist revolutions which had convulsed Indo-China for the previous decade entered into their final phase.

Religion of all types was an anathema for the incoming communists, however, and some were less tolerant than others. The Cham fled as Cambodia was annexed by the Khmer Rouge, who initiated a fierce pogrom that annihilated perhaps 200,000 Muslim Chams.

Their extermination is currently being examined as part of an international tribunal which has put Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen in the dock for crimes against humanity.

Upon arrival in Vientiane the Cham also found Laos in the final throes of a communist takeover by the Pathet Lao, and anxiety over the situation had forced many local Muslims to leave. But unlike the Khmer Rouge, Lao communists were relatively generous and fears inside the Islamic community proved unfounded.

The long-standing attitudes of the authorities in Laos also stand in stark contrast to the more recent pronouncements by Thein Sein that have compromised his integrity, initially gained on the back of social reforms, the release of political prisoners including the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and April by-elections which marked her return from the political wilderness.

In Laos, amid the chaos of communist takeovers in the region, the fleeing Cham found sanctuary and jobs. The children went to local schools while their parents built a mosque and _ importantly _ received citizenship.

Mr bin Ahmad was coy on the subject, saying he did not like to discuss politics but adding that Muslims in Laos were happy and had no problems with the authorities or the overwhelming Buddhist population.

Mr bin Ahmad said in broken English that there are problems in Myanmar but in Laos his congregation is safe and relations with the government are good.

But outside his Azhar Mosque the ill-feeling toward Myanmar authorities is more vocal.

“We don’t want to interfere in the politics of another country. We just want to keep the peace,” said Akmad Dokhan, a native Cambodian with Lao citizenship and fluent English. Mr Dokhan arrived in Laos in 1969 and later played an important part in re-settling Cambodian Chams who fled the Khmer Rouge, scrambled across the southern border into Laos and eventually made their way into the capital. He chose his words carefully.

“A decade ago non-Muslims looked down at us, they looked on Muslims as terrorists. We follow the holy book, the Koran,” he said. “People like Osama bin Laden and people who kill do not follow the book. They are not Muslims, they just kill.

“In Myanmar what is happening is the same, it’s just killing, and this is what Pol Pot and his people did _ it’s very bad. We don’t like politics, but the Rohingya need help.”

If Myanmar is to complete its efforts to normalise after years of isolation it must find an amiable resolution to the ethnic and religious strife that has plagued relations with the Rohingya, but it is a difficult situation. Even Nobel laureate Mrs Suu Kyi has remained disturbingly quiet on the issue.

The UN has welcomed Thein Sein’s announcement that a commission made up of relevant interest groups, including activists, officials from minority political parties, government and religious leaders would be established to find a lasting solution to the problem. the distinguished group might start by looking east over the border into neighbouring Laos, where Muslims are afforded the same inalienable rights as everyone else.