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How Myanmar's Buddhist-Muslim conflict has reached into Indonesia

In Indonesia, a brawl between Muslim and Buddhist detainees from Myanmar left eight dead today. Both sides are caught in a painful cycle of events.

By Staff writer / April 5, 2013

Migrants look out from bars at a cell of an immigration detention center in Belawan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday. Sectarian and ethnic tensions running high in Myanmar boiled over far outside the country's borders Friday, when Buddhist fishermen and Muslim asylum seekers from the country brawled with knives and rocks at an Indonesian immigration detention center, leaving eight dead.

Binsar Bakkara/AP

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Ambon, Indonesia

In a severely overcrowded Indonesian detention center, a brawl broke out today between Muslims and Buddhists that left eight of the latter group dead.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Indonesia, an archipelago that straddles the equator, has long been a way-station for people fleeing troubles in their homelands. For decades, boats with Afghans or Iraqis hoping to make it to Australia have washed up on its shores and their occupants have ended up spending months, and sometimes years, in detention here.

In this case, there's trouble much closer to home. In Myanmar (Burma), months of mostly Buddhist-instigated violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority have left tens of thousands homeless and hundreds dead. The country is in the middle of a transition process from a long military dictatorship to something resembling civilian rule, but that has meant more trouble, not less, for the Rohingyas. Ethnic-Burmese champions of the long struggle against military rule there, chief among them Aung San Suu Kyi, have largely avoided speaking out over the targeting of the Muslim minority, creating fears that recent spasms are just the beginning.

Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Thailand, and hundreds at least have floated on down to Muslim-majority Indonesia in makeshift boats, setting the stage for today's violence.

The Associated Press reports from Belawan, the town in North Sumatra that houses the migrant detention camp, that the brawl erupted after an argument between a Rohingya Muslim preacher and a Buddhist fisherman at the camp about the recent attacks on Muslims in Myanmar.

The violence spiraled almost immediately, and the group of 11 Buddhists there were badly outnumbered by the roughly 100 Rohingyas who’ve arrived there in recent months.

Recent events in Myanmar have been a reminder that, while Buddhism has a peaceful glow around it in the minds of many people in the West, its adherents are capable of horrific violence, given the right conditions, as is just about any other group on the planet.

Events in Indonesia today, meanwhile, are a reminder that the world is not one of confessional divides alone. I expect that some Indonesian incompetence was in play in this case, but they're certainly not guilty of picking sides with their fellow “Muslims.” The three Buddhist survivors were quickly given medical care and segregated in new accommodations.

The deaths are of course the most tragic part of the story. But the AP report also mentions that the fishermen, poor as church mice, have been detained in Indonesia for nine months for illegally fishing in Indonesian territorial waters. That’s a long time in detention for the crime of trying to make a living.

The Rohingyas in that camp, meanwhile, have lost their homes and aren’t getting the welcome mat rolled out to them here in Indonesia. The country has a long track record of trying to avoid resettlement of refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, and that’s unlikely to change soon.

Both sides in this brawl are trapped in a painful cycle of events, with few good options – beyond peace and a little more prosperity coming to their homeland.

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