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Deciphering Iran's Concern For Myanmar's Muslims


Muslims from Myanmar protest outside Myanmar's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Muslims from Myanmar protest outside Myanmar's embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Iran says it is very concerned about the killings of Muslims in Myanmar.

Violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in the country's Rakhine state has reportedly left dozens dead and displaced between 70,000 and 90,000 people.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Mohammad Khazaei, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Friday Prayer leaders, lawmakers, and other officials have in recent days condemned the killings and what they have described as the international community’s silence.

Officials have also said that Tehran is ready to do its best to protect the lives and honor of Muslims in Myanmar. There have been at least two state-sponsored protests in Iran in recent days against the violations of the rights of Myanmar’s Muslims, including one that took place in the Iranian capital on July 27.

(Click for pictures of the protest)

Khamenei, who has been silent about the death of civilians in Syria or opposition activists in Iran during the 2009 antigovernment protests, suggested last week that he is losing sleep over the killings in Myanmar.

“Our representatives went there. They came back and gave us news over which one loses sleep. How inattentive the world is today about human rights, in the real sense,“ Khamenei said on July 22, while accusing Western countries of ignoring the plight of Myanmar's Muslims.

"A clear example of the West’s false claims about ethics and human rights is the silence of these claimants [of human rights] on the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Myanmar,” he added.

Amnesty International reported last week that, according to figures released by Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission, at least 78 people have been killed since the violence began in late May. The group added, however, that unofficial estimates exceed 100 dead.

Iranian officials and media refer to the killings as a “massacre” and “genocide.” While Khamenei and several lawmakers have claimed that thousands have died in Myanmar, Iran’s Foreign Ministry puts the number of dead at 160.

Iran's public expressions of concern over Myanmar are perhaps indicative of its desire to be seen as a defender of the world’s Muslims.

But as former Iranian lawmaker Ali Mazrouei notes, the Iranian establishment’s concern has been selective in the past. Mazrouei told “Persian Letters” that Tehran has been far less passionate about the lot of Muslims in countries that are considered its allies, including China, Russia, and Syria.

“Muslims were killed in [western] China some time ago but Iran did not take a stance. Or regarding the killings of Muslims in Chechnya or in Syria -- aren’t those who are being killed from both sides Muslims?" Mazrouei said.

"It seems that the concern for [Muslims in Myanmar] is a new propaganda line by the Islamic republic to keep people busy and force everyone to follow the official line.”

Iran has supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime despite the bloody 16-month crackdown, which according to some estimates has left 17,000 dead.

Another reason for Iran’s public compassion for Myanmar’s Muslims could be an attempt to divert public attention away from inflation and rising food prices, particularly the price of chicken, which has become a major political issue.

Last week a group of citizens protested against high food prices in the western city of Neishaboor. The protest appeared to be the first case of street unrest connected to rising food prices, which is being widely blamed on the government’s mismanagement of the economy and international sanctions.

“If people are not distracted from these issues, then they can become a major challenge [for the establishment],” Mazrouei said.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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