Even by the standards of Burma’s Rakhine State, which has seen its share of tragedy, the violence of the past two weeks has been staggering. Militants from the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority stormed police posts on August 25. The attacks killed at least a dozen members of Burma’s security forces and prompted clashes that have resulted in the deaths of some 400 people. The Burmese military claims most of the dead are Rohingya insurgents, but Rohingya activists counter that civilian casualties figure highly. Villages are on fire. More than 140,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. “All the other villages have been already burnt down,” a Rohingya activist messaged me this week. “Women are giving birth while running away.” More than 10,000 Rakhine Buddhists have been internally displaced.
But for hardline Buddhist nationalists, the chaos may be a boon insofar as it lends support to their negative portrayal of the country’s Muslim minority. Ma Ba Tha, a group led by ultranationalist Buddhist monks, can already be seen using the August 25 attacks as fodder in their weekly newspaper Aung Zay Yatu, whose tagline is “Race and Religion Must Exist Until the World Ends.” In the September 1 issue, one headline read: “The Different Dangers of Bengali Muslims.” (Despite evidence to the contrary, Burma’s government insists the Rohingya are from Bangladesh and calls them Bengali.) The newspaper also featured an interview with Ashin Wirathu, a hardline monk and Ma Ba Tha leader who has served time in prison for inciting anti-Muslim violence.