An al-Jazeera English documentary on violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma's western province of Rakhine has earned a formal, public rebuke from the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar strongly opposes and rejects the attempt made by Al Jazeera to broadcast the documentary by exaggerating and fabricating the incidents in Rakhine State," a seven-point statement concludes.
The 50-minute program documents the persecution of Burma's ethnic Rohingya minority, who are Muslim. Most Burmese are Buddhist. In June, violence spiraled out of control after several Muslims were lynched in retaliation for the rape of a Buddhist woman. The state of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has at times suggested that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are not actually Burmese, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though that country does not want them either.
The Rohingya issue, including the minority's uncertain future, seems to be getting worse as Burma embarks on an otherwise promising agenda of reforms. The topic is extremely sensitive for the government, and in some ways, in Rakhine, it's still the old Burma, a police state. From an AP story on the aftermath of the recent fighting:
Few issues in Myanmar are as sensitive as this.
The conflict has galvanized an almost nationalistic furor against the Rohingya, who majority Buddhists believe are trying to steal scarce land and forcibly spread the Islamic faith. Myanmar’s recent transition to democratic rule has opened the way for monks to stage anti-Rohingya protests as an exercise in freedom of expression, and for vicious anti-Rohingya rants to swamp Internet forums.
In the nearby town of Pauktaw, where all that remains of a once-significant Muslim community are the ashes of charred homes and blackened palm trees, the hatred is clear. Graffiti scrawled inside a destroyed mosque ominously warns that the “Rakhine will drink Kalar blood.” Kalar is a derogatory epithet commonly used to refer to Muslims here.
Myanmar’s reformist leader, President Thein Sein, had set a harsh tone over the summer, saying that “it is impossible to accept those Rohingya who are not our ethnic nationals.”
The al-Jazeera program seems to have so upset the Burmese government in part for its suggestion that the violence could be part of "a deliberate attempt to end the Rohingya as a people," an enormous assertion that the program never quite proves. Still, it's a useful and dramatic telling of the crisis and what it means for the country and its people.