Mandalay’s Chinese Muslims Chilled by Riots

MANDALAY, Myanmar — When hundreds of Buddhist men carrying clubs and swords marauded through the streets of this old royal capital earlier this month, the owner of a Muslim-Chinese restaurant took down the Koranic scriptures and the image of Mecca hanging above the cashier and removed the Arabic writing from signs on the street.

“I don’t know when I will put them back up, maybe never,” said Jian Hao Yang, whose restaurant is a short walk from the mosque where Chinese Muslims have worshiped for close to a century and a half.

Mandalay, the city that evokes the romance of Kipling for Westerners, has been a center of Buddhist learning since its founding in the 19th century by a broad-minded Burmese Buddhist king. It has also been a conglomeration of complexions, religions and ethnicities, a trading post and halfway point between the great civilizations of China and India.

But the historical tolerance shown by bygone Buddhist rulers is unraveling in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, as antipathy between Buddhists and Muslims continues to spread across Myanmar, fomented by a radical Buddhist movement that is partly based here.

The riots in Mandalay, which left two people dead and prompted a nighttime curfew, brought religious hatred to the doorstep of one of the country’s best assimilated minorities, Chinese Muslims known here as the Panthay.

The Panthay are distinct from the broader Muslim population, which is in large part made up of Indian Muslims. But in a measure of how ubiquitous antipathy toward Muslims has become today, the Panthay, after decades of lives interwoven into Burmese and Buddhist society, now fear for their safety.

“We are now among the hated,” said U Maung Maung Lay, the great-grandson of a Panthay leader who moved here from southern China in the 1850s.

For a week after the riots, the board of trustees of the Panthay mosque, among them jade merchants, a pediatric surgeon and timber barons, suspended the festivities that normally accompany the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. They also turned down the volume of the loudspeakers announcing the call to prayer.

The mosque has since resumed the ceremonial breaking of the fast, but the celebration is muted and more sparsely attended than in years past.

“We are now living a lower profile,” said U Win Aung, one of the trustees of the mosque. “It’s for our own good.”

The Panthay mosque, with thick, fading ocher walls and a minaret built from Burmese hardwood, was erected in the 1860s with the blessings of a great Burmese king, Mindon, who although a devoted patron of Buddhism, welcomed the Muslim community and provided the land where the mosque remains.

Mandalay today is a sprawling city dotted with Buddhist pagodas, churches and mosques. But it is also home to the radical teachings of Ashin Wirathu, a monk who has preached hatred toward Muslims and is the spiritual leader of a movement to boycott Muslim businesses.

When bands of young Buddhists prowled the streets carrying clubs and shouting anti-Muslim slogans on the night of July 1, Mr. Maung Maung Lay, the descendant of the Panthay leader, fled to a hotel with his family.

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He advised Panthay women to remove head coverings and told Muslim friends with beards to shave.

“I told them: ‘Shave it off. It endangers you. The beard is not important. What is important is how you practice your religion.’ ”

Violence against Muslims in Myanmar began two years ago along the border with Bangladesh, as a dispute between Buddhists and the million-strong community of Muslims known as Rohingya.

Many Rohingya have lived in the country for several generations but are considered illegal immigrants by the Burmese government, denied citizenship, and seen as a demographic threat by Buddhists, who make up the vast majority of the country’s population of about 60 million.

Anti-Muslim riots have spread to towns and villages across Myanmar as old resentments toward Muslim immigrants that were buried during five decades of military rule resurfaced amid the new freedoms of the country’s budding democracy.

The riots in Mandalay signaled a new level of threat in the religious strife: for the first time a big metropolis was at risk.

“No one really knows how the violence could escalate and who could be the next target,” said Thant Myint-U, one of the country’s leading historians. “There’s deep-seated prejudice against many minority communities, extremely high unemployment, rampant rumor mongering and a lot of general anxiety about the future. It’s an environment that’s very easy for anyone to exploit.”

U Thein Win Aung, the imam of a mosque on the outskirts of Mandalay, says the city “is like a pile of wood ready to burn.”

“It will take just one spark,” said Mr. Thein Win Aung, who is active in interfaith groups that are trying to stave off conflicts in the city.

The violence in Mandalay, which was set off by unconfirmed reports on Facebook of a rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim men, could have been much worse had it not been for the intervention of a Buddhist monk and former political prisoner, Mr. Thein Win Aung and others say.

The monk, Galonni Sayadaw, approached the roving bands of young Buddhist men and urged them to return to their homes. The monk also publicly exhorted the chief of police, who as in previous bouts of religious unrest did not immediately intervene, to disperse the crowds.

At the end of two nights of violence, the damage to property was not as severe as in some other cities racked by religious violence: a number of cars in Indian Muslim neighborhoods had been burned and mosques had been attacked with stones but were not seriously damaged. But the two men killed — a Buddhist, U Tun Tun, and a Muslim, U Soe Min — were brutally murdered. The body of the Muslim man was identifiable by his wife only by a distinctive blemish on one of his toes.

In an interview, Galonni, the monk, expressed the widely held view that the violence was backed by forces allied with conservative factions of the government that are trying to slow the country’s moves toward democracy ahead of landmark elections next year. “As we come closer to elections there will be more conflict,” he said.

David Scott Mathieson, an analyst with Human Rights Watch in Myanmar, wrote after the Mandalay riots that it appeared that the “violence was not just an organic eruption of communal resentment” and noted that it may have been linked to a planned visit to Mandalay on Sunday by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader. Burmese analysts have speculated that the violence might be associated with efforts to slow her ascension in politics and ultimately derail her attempts to become president.

Mr. Thein Win Aung, the imam, says religious strife is also being aggravated by what he describes as radical Muslims trained in India and the Middle East, who are preaching separation from Buddhist society.

Moderates in the city, both Muslims and Buddhists, are resigned to the reality that its live-and-let-live ethos, the greater tolerance of years past, is gone for now.

The restaurant owner, Mr. Yang, says that as tensions have risen over the last two years, he hides his religion from all but the closest of his Burmese friends. “If they serve pork, I say, ‘No, I can’t eat it — I’m allergic.’ ”

Mr. Yang, who also has a Burmese name and whose family has been in Myanmar for several generations, says he feels most comfortable within the Panthay community, which is feeling increasingly ostracized by the Burmese.

“We feel like foreigners,” he said, “and they treat us like immigrants.”