The Muslims of Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 13 October 2014

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could not have done a greater disservice to the Muslims of Myanmar when, in early September, he claimed that he was going to “raise the flag of jihad,” or holy war, across South Asia. That would, he said, include actions in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir. Not surprisingly, the London-based Burmese Muslim Association issued a statement shortly afterward, saying that “the Muslims in Burma will never accept any help from a terrorist organization, which is in principle a disgrace and morally repugnant.”

Mr. Zawahiri, a 63-year-old former Egyptian eye surgeon, is known for issuing long-winded video clips, but the al-Qaeda he now leads has lost most of its muscle since its founder and former leader Osama bin Laden was killed inside his residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by a squad of US naval special warfare troops on May 2, 2011. Since then, al-Qaeda has become more or less irrelevant, and statements such as Mr. Zawahiri’s should be seen as a desperate attempt by the group to show that it is still alive and kicking—especially in view of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Or, as the BBC reported on Sept. 4, the once-feared terrorist group has withered while ISIS “has grown into everything al-Qaeda tried—and failed—to be.”

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Zawahiri, who is also most probably holed up in a safe house in Pakistan, would be able to carry out his threats. The only proven link between al-Qaeda and Muslims in Myanmar goes back to the early 1990s, when the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) had a camp in Ukhia between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in southeastern Bangladesh. At that time, Afghan militants visited the camp and RSO did arrange for some Muslim refugees from Rakhine State to be sent to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. Tellingly, among the more than 60 videotapes that the American cable television network CNN obtained from al-Qaeda’s archives in Afghanistan in August 2002, one marked “Burma” showed Muslim “allies” undergoing weapons training. But the RSO has never had any camps inside Myanmar, only across the border in Bangladesh. That was where the tape was shot—and among the purported RSO fighters were militants from the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the fundamentalist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. The activities at the now closed Ukhia camp had more to do with Bangladeshi politics than any ethnic or religious conflict in Myanmar.

In more recent years, a Muslim firebrand calling himself Abdul Kuddus al-Burmi and claiming to be from Myanmar issued video clips with himself speaking in the Myanmar language, followed by footage of armed Muslim fighters on parade. But he is based in a madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan, and the footage was either shot in Ukhia in the early 1990s or in a camp run by Indonesian militants from Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid on Gunung Biru, or the Blue Mountain, in Poso on the island of Sulawesi—thousands of kilometers away from Myanmar, or Bangladesh for that matter.

Apart from such anomalies, Myanmar’s Muslims have never been of the rebellious kind in a religious sense. According to Moshe Yegar, an Israeli academic and former diplomat, Muslim seamen from the Arab world first reached Myanmar in the 9th century. Some became traders while others served as horsemen for Myanmar kings, among them Anawratha. Most of them were men, so they usually married local women and became integrated into society. In the 19th century, King Mindon made sure his Muslim soldiers were served halal food and many helped clear the land for buildings in the new capital, Mandalay. Mindon also appointed a Muslim called Kabul Maulavi to be a judge in charge of Muslim affairs. Apart from being soldiers, many Muslims were traders and shopkeepers.

During the British time, many Muslims emigrated from British India, but they also took part in the independence movement. The most prominent was M.A. Raschid, a close friend of Gen. Aung San’s. Mr. Raschid was born in Allahabad in India but grew up and was educated in Myanmar. In 1936 he became the first secretary general of the Rangoon University Students’ Union and later its president. During the parliamentary era, 1948-1962, U Raschid, as he was then known, served in several ministries under Prime Minister U Nu. Like other state leaders, he was interned for some time after the 1962 coup. And two Muslims were among the martyrs who were assassinated along with Gen. Aung San on July 19, 1947: U Abdul Razak, a native of Meikhtila and a cabinet minister, and his young body guard Ko Htwe. U Kha, another prominent member of Yangon’s Muslim community, served as minister of education in the 1950s.

And who would forget Maung Thaw Ka, the former naval officer turned popular writer and poet, who was one of the original founders of the National League for Democracy? He was arrested in July 1989, beaten and tortured and died in Insein Jail on June 11, 1991. He is buried in Yangon’s Sunni cemetery beside his brother, U Ba Zaw, or U Gholan Marmed, a Myanmar army captain.

During the darkest weeks after the massacres in August and September 1988, people of different religious persuasions got together and formed the Burma Interfaith Relief Committee. In a unique show of inter-religious harmony, they delivered supplies to Yangon’s poor neighborhoods in a battered, World War Two-era truck with a banner displaying symbols of their respective faiths: the Buddhist dhammachakka wheel, the Christian cross, the Muslim crescent and star, and the Hindu om symbol. Although it was never registered as such, the group could be seen as one of modern Myanmar’s first community-based NGOs. Among the leaders were S.A. Ginwalla, a Muslim, and U Bo, the head of the well-established Young Men’s Buddhist Association. According to Chris Lamb, Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar at the time: “They did not come from particular designations within their faiths, but rather everyone wanted to make sure that the IFRC had the capacity to reach the most vulnerable irrespective of their religion or other status.” Piety, not fanaticism, was the guiding principle of those NGO pioneers.

On the more humorous side, everyone in Myanmar loves U Shwe Yoe, the jolly dancer with his broken umbrella and ill-fitting longyi who for almost a century has been a major figure in any pwe (traditional dance troupe performance). The character was invented in 1923 by Ba Galay, a prominent Myanmar actor, comedian, dancer and cartoonist. Ba Galay was a Myanmar Muslim, born in Pathein, and his other name was Mohammed Bashir. And is there anyone who would seriously suggest that U Shwe Yoe was or is a jihadist and a proponent of shariah law? Zawahiri may be fooling himself, but nobody else, when he issues silly videos like the one recorded from his hideout in Pakistan in early September. There is no fertile ground for that kind of gobbledygook in Myanmar.

This story first appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.