Muslims in Burma – A Struggle to Live with Dignity and Respect

By Aung Zaw 7 August 2012

Part One of Two

For Buddhists and Muslims who live and co-exist in Burma, the recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Arakan State is nothing new. The profound fear that many feel, however, is that this won’t be the last time that these two communities are torn apart by strife.

The lack of rational and informed debate on this issue at the national and local level can only fuel more tension and sow deep mistrust. Moreover, there are forces inside and outside Burma that want to exploit this explosive situation. These elements have their own political agendas, and stand to gain if they can further inflame the hatred and mutual misunderstandings we have witnessed in recent months.

A recently released report by New York-based Human Rights Watch concluded that the government and its troops failed to do enough to prevent riots that broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State in June.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

The document outlines that while the Burmese armed forces stepped in to keep an uneasy peace between the two sides, elements of the security forces, such as local police and the Na Sa Ka—the border security force—either allowed attacks on Muslims or participated in the violence.

“With little to no government security present to stop the violence, people armed themselves with swords, spears, sticks, iron rods, knives and other basic weaponry. Inflammatory anti-Muslim media accounts and local propaganda fanned the violence,” the report added.

President Thein Sein, who has received kudos from the international community for his reforms since taking power last year, warned in a live speech in early June that the violence could derail the transition process by threatening Burma’s stability and development. He said the ongoing strife was fueled by religious and racial hatred that resulted in widespread anarchic activities.

“If we are sticking to endless hatred and revenge by killing each other, it’s possible that the danger will be more widespread, not only in Arakan State,” warned the former general.

Burmese authorities and the majority of Arakanese have repeatedly insisted that the Rohingya don’t belong in Burma. Then, in a meeting with high-ranking UNHCR officials in Naypyidaw, the president surprised (or disappointed) many by saying that Burma would be willing to send the Rohingya to third countries for resettlement because his country simply couldn’t accept them.

According to a statement from the President’s Office, Thein Sein told the UNHCR delegates: “Burma will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Burma.”

While many foreign observers were appalled by these comments, they won widespread support in Burma, particularly in Arakan State.

It has been disturbing to witness the nationalistic vitriol that has filled social media sites such as Facebook, where Burmese officials and ordinary citizens—including some leading dissidents—have actively inflamed the violence by spreading misinformation, rumors, hatred and anti-Muslim propaganda aimed at the Rohingya.

Amid this haze of hate-filled half-truths and outright lies, one thing is perfectly clear: the only winners in all of this are the hardliners who have no desire to see Burma change it ways. The rest of us—and particularly the Arakanese and the Muslims who are exchanging blows—stand only to lose from this senseless cycle of violence.

It is shocking to see how quickly many Burmese have forgotten what it feels like to suffer under the boot heel of a brutal regime. Have Burmese—the majority of whom are Buddhists—lost their compassion and understanding of what it means to be completely at the mercy of forces intent on obliterating their culture, identity and religion? The Buddha never told his followers to hate and attack other religions and races.

Some more reasonable Burmese, however, have asked where all of this will end. “If the Rohingya are our enemies, what about our other ‘enemies’ to the north?” they want to know, referring to the Chinese, many thousands of whom have made their way into Burma in recent decades under the cover of friendly ties between the former junta and the Chinese government. Would any official dare to treat them the same way as they do the Rohingya?

But such questions have little power to still the onslaught of harsh words emanating from many who should know better. Senior officials close to ministers and the president have abused social media to spew chauvinistic and racist views, while the local media—still heavily censored—feel free to target the Rohingya.

Without informed debate and at least a basic understanding of the history of Muslims in Burma, there is not much hope we will ever resolve the problems facing Arakan State and the rest of the country, where ethnic and religious differences continue to divide communities and create openings for those who seek to foment conflict rather than end it.

It is worth remembering that in the early days of the current outbreak of hostilities in Burma’s westernmost state, the state media chose to use the word “kalar”—a derogatory term applied to foreigners, particularly those of South Asia descent—to refer to the Rohingya. Was this a deliberate attempt to stir up animosity toward them? Many suspect so.

If the aim really was to create ethnic enmity, it should come as no surprise. Burma’s rulers have a history of going on the offensive against defenseless groups, and this habit seems to die hard, even when the country is led by an ostensibly “civilian” government led, for the most part, by ex-generals.

The last time that the Rohingya were on the receiving end of such attacks was in December 1991, when Burma’s former junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), drove as many as 30,000 Rohingyas across the border into Bangladesh. Reports at the time even suggested that there were cross-border raids.

At that time, the SLORC was facing heavy international pressure due to its crackdown on students, activists and monks and was increasingly isolated. The National League for Democracy had won a landslide electoral victory that the generals refused to acknowledge, and the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The junta wanted a way to distract domestic attention from its failings, and found it by going after the Rohingya.

Then, as now, the regime’s actions were condemned by the international community, particularly in the Muslim world. Islamic organizations and countries around the region and in the Middle East all voiced outrage. Prince Khaled Sultan Abdul Aziz, the commander of the Saudi contingent in the 1991 Gulf War, went to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he strongly recommended Desert Storm-like action against Burma.

The Committee for Islamic Solidarity in Jakarta accused the SLORC of acting like Nazis and urged the UN to stop atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. The issue finally died down when Burma accepted Rohingya refugees back into the country.

This episode marks one of the low points in the history of Muslims living in Burma. But it also provides a glimpse into the complexity of the Rohingya issue, since the Burmese army’s campaign in Arakan State was actually supported by many Burmese Muslims who shared the common view of the Rohingya as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.

In any case, the history of Muslims in Burma has not always been as fraught with conflict as it is today.

Some historians believe that Muslims began to arrive in Burma in the 13th century. Muslim traders and mercenaries first came to Burma by sea and lived in coastal regions. Those who remained and settled in Burma loyally served under Burmese kings. Foreign and Burmese historians suggest, for instance, that King Anawrahta (1014 –1077), the founder of Pagan Empire, had Muslim Indian units and bodyguards.

King Bayinnaung (1516–1581), who launched campaigns to invade the Thai kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Lanna and the areas of present-day Shan and Arakan states, had his own Muslim and Portuguese artillerymen. However, historians say that he was also the first Burmese king to show religious intolerance toward Muslims. He forbade them to slaughter cattle and forced them to listen to Buddhist sermons.

For the most part, however, Burmese kings generally tolerated small Muslim communities that came and settled in Burma. These Muslims spoke Burmese and dressed like Burmese, but they preserved their religion. Essentially, they were accepted because their communities were small and did not engage in efforts to convert Buddhists, even though they often married Burmese women. In other words, they did not represent any threat to Buddhism or Burmese culture.

Under Burma’s monarchy, Buddhists, Muslims and followers of other religions coexisted with little or no tension. Under King Mindon, a reformed-minded monarch who ruled Burma from 1853 to 1878, Christians were allowed to build churches and Muslims to build mosques. Mindon even helped to build a hostel in Mecca for the comfort of Burmese Muslim pilgrims, and his army had thousands of Muslim soldiers who served in different administrative posts and in the infantry and artillery divisions. Evidently, the Burmese king did not see his traditional role as protector of Buddhism as entailing a hostile attitude toward other faiths.

This prevailing attitude of mutual respect began to change, however, with the advent of British rule. Following the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824 to 1826), a large number of Indian immigrants began to arrive in southern Burma and Arakan State. Burma subsequently became a province of Britain’s Indian empire. Of course, this had an enormous impact on the country’s social and economic structure.

Local Burmese witnessed large numbers of Indian Muslims coming to settle in Burma, as the opening of trade routes to foreign markets, including Europe, forced the country’s new rulers to seek more and more cheap and skilled labor. With its vast population, India inevitably became a main source of these much-needed human resources.

In addition to doing manual labor and other jobs that did not appeal to Burmese, many Indians, including Muslims, also came to Burma to work as soldiers, policemen, government officials and businessmen. The numbers of Indians and Muslims increased every year, especially in the capital, Rangoon, but also to a lesser extent in some small cities and villages.

Indian Muslims built mosques and established associations and schools devoted to religious activities across Burma. Organizations such as the Muslims Students’ Society and institutions such as the Muslim Free Hospital (which was later nationalized by Gen Ne Win, the dictator who seized power in 1962) became well-known in the country. This rise in prominence, accompanied by an increase in the Muslim population, began to alarm many who feared the loss of Burma’s traditional Buddhist identity. Marriage between Muslim men and Buddhist women became a contentious issue, and there was even a proposal to pass a bill to prevent Buddhist women from marrying foreigners. All of this coincided with growing nationalist sentiment (a popular slogan at that time was “Burma for Burmese”), which was directed primarily, but not exclusively, at the British.

The large Muslim migration from neighboring countries and the expansion of their Islamic religious activities eventually sparked a “clash of civilizations” in pre-independence Burma. Things came to a head in the 1930s, when serious anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots broke out. Adding fuel to the fire, this was during the Great Depression, a period of severe economic hardship for Burma, when many ordinary Burmese were suddenly out of work. Indians, who had come to dominate certain sectors of the economy, including low-skill jobs and money-lending, were increasingly resented.

The worst of these riots occurred in July 1938, when the publication of a book that allegedly insulted Buddhism provoked a violent backlash. The New Light of Burma, an influential newspaper, fanned the flames by calling for a boycott of Muslim shops. Even Buddhist monks played a very active role in the riots. The violence spread across Burma, killing hundreds of Muslims and Buddhists and resulting in the destruction of a number of mosques.

In spite of all this, Muslims born in Burma continued to play an important role in Burmese society. They were politicians, army officers, government servants, scholars and teachers. One of the most prominent names was U Razak, a well-known politician and cabinet minister who died alongside independence leader Aung San when he was assassinated in 1947. Muslim politicians Khin Maung Latt and U Rashid also served as ministers under U Nu, Burma’s first and only democratically elected prime minister.

Today, many Muslims feel that they still aren’t fully accepted in Burmese society, even after demonstrating their loyalty to the nation. They complain that they are still regarded with suspicion and treated like second-class citizens. The situation is similar to that of other ethnic minorities, including the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin and the Arakanese.

After independence, Muslims continued to struggle to gain respect and find a place under the sun. Under different organizations and councils established in the 1940s, Muslims continued to press the new government to recognize Muslims as a national minority and grant them community representation, cultural and religious rights. Under U Nu’s leadership, Muslim leaders also requested a special government department for Muslim affairs, but it was turned down. U Nu did, however, have cabinet ministers from different ethnic groups who took care of their respective ethnic Karen, Kachin and Shan affairs.

However, when Gen Ne Win seized state power in March 1962, he set out to crush the aspirations of all of Burma’s ethnic minorities.