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Pakistan's extremists whip up frenzy over Burma's Muslims

The exaggerated version of truth about violence in Myanmar propagated by religious groups in Pakistan to recruit and fund their own agendas.

By Correspondent / August 3, 2012

Rohingya Muslims who fled the ethnic violence in Myanmar pray after breaking their fast at a temporary shelter in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, Aug. 3. The international community has raised concerns about human rights abuses against Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Binsar Bakkara/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

Pakistanis are mounting protests online and in the streets of cities like Lahore and Peshawar over the ill-treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a situation that Islamist groups here are distorting to raise money and potentially win recruits.

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The international community has raised concerns about human rights abuses against Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar. Clashes in June between Rohingyas and their Buddhist neighbors, the Rakhine, left 78 dead, according to the Myanmar government. A new Human Rights Watch report calls the number "grossly underestimated" and charges that security forces failed to protect Rohingyas, and in some cases opened fire on them.

But on the streets of Pakistan, the rhetoric runs much hotter with protesters claiming "thousands" of Rohingyas are being slaughtered in western Myanmar (also known as Burma). Online, meanwhile, a series of doctored and misidentified photographs are circulating widely in Pakistani social media and beyond that purport to show violence against Rohingyas. 

Investigations by social media watchdogs, and the respected Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune, have proven that most of these claims are exaggerated or entirely false. 

For example, one photo posted on a Facebook page originating from Pakistan show Buddhists dressed in their traditional red robes standing in the middle of two rows of dead bodies. The caption reads: "Bodies of Muslims killed by Buddhists." In reality, this picture is from an earthquake incident in China in 2010, where Tibetan monks came to help with the rescue efforts.

Islamist groups are exploiting the whipped up sentiments in Pakistan to raise money, ostensibly for the Rohingyas, at a time when political parties are also building up campaign coffers in anticipation of upcoming national elections. One militant Islamist group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, even threatened the Myanmar government, saying it will avenge the blood of Muslims being killed in Myanmar.

Shahzad Ahmad, the Pakistan country director for the global online activism group called Bytes for All, says stories of Muslim victimization around the world are exaggerated in Pakistan by Islamist groups on the Internet.

“They use such campaigns not only to fund themselves but also to gain more political ground and recruit people for their cause. Our research shows that there are many fake photographs being used to propagate [stories of] atrocities against Muslims on many of the Facebook pages which originate from Pakistan,” says Mr. Ahmad.

Hundreds of pages in support of the Rohingya have appeared on the Internet over the past few months, he says.

“While there is no denying there are human rights violations in Myanmar against Muslims, such exaggerated online campaigns may attract those who want to promote terror and collaborate with extremist groups which operate openly in Pakistan,” adds Ahmad.

Among the groups involved in stirring the activism are Jamat-ud-Dawa, Jamat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, three Islamist groups which hold significant street power in the country. 

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