In a country where discrimination against minority groups is a fact of life, Muslims are bottom of the heap.
There is a saying that if you lose control of your bicycle in Burma’s western Arakan State, you shouldn’t worry as it will stop when it hits a kala.
Kala is Burmese slang for outsider, or alien, and although Caucasians are sometimes referred to as white kala, the term is more commonly used for anyone dark skinned, usually of Indian origin. While some shrug the term off, others consider it abusive and degrading: an insult to people whose ancestors may have fought for the country and who consider themselves wholly Burmese.
However the name is interpreted, the fact remains that Burmese Muslims of Southern Asian descent—there is also a small community of Chinese Muslims, the Panthay, with roots in southern Yunnan province—are treated very much as outsiders. Some Buddhist Burmese complain that Muslims refuse to integrate, or sneer at their religious practices. Others will look you in the eye and tell of a Muslim master plan to convert Burmese women to Islam, raise children and, eventually, take over the country.
A Buddhist taxi driver in Rangoon rolled his eyes when I asked him whether he liked Muslim people: “They kill cattle,” he said, referring to Eid Al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. “We need cattle to work in the rice fields, but they kill them.”
The ceremony is an important date in the Muslim calendar, commemorating Allah’s challenge to Ibrahim, and the meat from the sacrificed animal is shared among the community. Although the meat is gratefully accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, many Buddhists find the ceremony offensive.
“We definitely have an image problem,” admits Ahmed, a local Muslim leader speaking after Friday prayers at one of Rangoon’s downtown mosques. “We encourage people to be discreet, so as not to offend others, but I think sometimes we make local people feel like they are living with strangers—the way some of us dress, the way we speak, our activities. We are partly responsible.”
The “some of us” here illustrates the divide even within the Muslim community. As Moshe Yegar points out in his 1972 study The Muslims of Burma, there are deep-rooted differences between the Rohingyas of Arakan State, the fundamentalist “Indian Muslims” who are mostly based in Rangoon and those who have striven for total integration: “These are different groups that do not identify with each other, do not share the same goals and aspirations, and hardly ever cooperated in any of that community’s struggles.”
The first Muslims to settle in what is now Burma are believed to have been Persian and Arab mariners who landed on the Arakan coast back in the 8th or 9th century and, according to records, their descendents served under King Anawrahta (1044-1077) and his son King Sawlu (1077-1088). The 12th and 13th centuries saw the arrival of more seafarers, as well as an influx of Muslims from present-day Bangladesh—the Rohingyas. The kingdom of Arakan fell to the Burmese toward the end of the 18th century and was ceded to the British 40 years later, during the first Anglo-Burmese war.
When the British embarked on their annexation of Lower Burma in 1824, they brought with them significant numbers of migrants from South Asia, a number of whom assumed key posts in business, politics and the civil service. Many retained their positions following independence in 1948, and during the fifties and early sixties there were several notable Muslim MPs and ministers.
But when General Ne Win swept to power on a wave of nationalism in 1962, things began to change. Expelled from the government and army, Burmese Muslims found themselves ever more marginalized. The position of Muslims in society and the legacy of independence heroes such as Abdul Razak, better known as Saya Gyi U Razak, who was assassinated along with national icon general Aung San, was slowly being eroded.
A 2002 report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (“Crackdown on Burmese Muslims”) notes: “There is no written directive that bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government...but in practice that is what happens.”
“There is definitely discrimination in the workplace,” says Aesop, a local Muslim businessman. “There are no Muslim headmasters or directors of companies. No professors. There are sergeants and corporals in the army, but nothing above that.”
While all but the elite must wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to slowly turn in Burma, many Muslims feel the wheels turn more slowly for them. As Aesop says: “Our citizenship rights are denied.
Identification cards—which show you are Muslim—are confiscated or not granted in the first place. Without an identity card you can’t travel, conduct business or study. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”
A recent article in the government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar (“Myanmar [Burma], Where all Citizens Enjoy Freedom of Worship,” December 2, 2005) trumpets the country’s cordial relationship with the Muslim population, who officially make up 3.78 percent of the nation’s 54 million citizens, though other estimates put the figure as high as 16 percent. It also rather confusingly claims that “unlike in some countries, there have occurred no conflicts nor riots based on religious or racial disputes in Myanmar. Whenever there was a racial tension due to an instigation or a wedge driven among the religions, the government has always settled the disputes in coordination with respective racial or religious leaders.”
While this ties in neatly with the guidelines for Burma’s ongoing constitutional convention—which espouses “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health”—it may surprise those who hold the government responsible for the waves of anti-Muslim violence that have erupted in recent years.
The Human Rights Watch report also details events from 2001, when angry mobs attacked Muslim homes, businesses and mosques in Sittwe, Taungoo and Prome. Anger at the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, or the conversion to Islam by local women marrying Muslim men may have proved the catalyst for violence, but many of the attacks, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of properties and dozens of deaths, were first blamed on Buddhist monks. Reliable reports, however, suggest the ringleaders were in all probability disguised government agents sent in to stir up trouble.
Heavy restrictions were placed on the towns where conflict arose. Evening curfews were imposed and group prayers of more than five people were banned. Existing laws meant that permission to build new mosques, or even repair those damaged during the riots, was consistently denied.
The same is true in the new satellite towns that have sprung up on the outskirts of Rangoon. When the government forcibly relocated thousands of residents from rundown inner city neighborhoods in the early nineties—ostensibly to demonstrate its commitment to urban development, but in reality to sell off vast swathes of land to private developers—no provision was made for any religious practice, other than Buddhist. One almost completely Muslim neighborhood in Tamwe Township was scooped up en masse and dumped in a new location outside Pegu. Permission for the building of mosques has been turned down time and time again and Muslims are forced to pray privately and behind closed doors.
More and more, Muslims are being encouraged to shut themselves off from society at large, to become more self-reliant, to become more insular.
Bus driver Mahmood sends his son to a Muslim school, where he studies the Koran every day. Mahmood does not describe himself as a particularly devout Muslim but, with a young family to support, he cannot afford the fees to provide all his children with a state education. The school is funded by a group of private Saudi Arabian companies and is free to any child with a basic knowledge of Islam.
“I’m so happy for my son,” says Mahmood. “His future is safe.”
Muslim schools funded privately from overseas are increasingly common in Rangoon and, with the Burmese economy currently in tatters and the education system in freefall, they are proving an attractive proposition. The image of Muslims “looking after their own” is gaining admirers on a wider scale, too. “It’s not unheard of for poor Buddhists to convert to Islam to take advantage of funeral services, which the local mosques pay for,” says one Rangoon journalist. “Now some Buddhist organizations have even started similar services.”
But while foreign bodies continue to lend financial support at a community level, many are asking whether the world’s Muslim community could do more to help its Burmese brothers.
“Our only real contact with the Middle East is with the Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca or Medina that Muslims are expected to complete at least once in their life],” says Ahmed. “In the Middle East, they don’t know where Burma is.
Their only point of reference is “that lady” [Aung San Suu Kyi] or the place where bogus monks throw stones at mosques.”
With the denial of citizenship, restrictions on religious practice, professional discrimination and a growing sense of alienation, one might expect Burmese Muslims to be easy prey for extremist groups operating in the region.
Separatist clashes in Indonesia’s Aceh province and the southern Philippines, together with continuing violence in Thailand’s Deep South have thrown Islam into the Southeast Asian spotlight as never before. Paramilitary groups such as the Malaysian Mujahideen Group (KMM) and the pan-Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah—whose latest series of suicide bombings left at least 19 dead in Bali—have been linked with Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda network and are believed to be laying foundations for a hardline Islamic state, comprising parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
For now, though, disaffected young Muslims are more likely to flee the cities and join ethnic resistance groups. The All Burma Muslim Union, which the government routinely brands “Muslim terrorist insurgents,” actually operates alongside the largely secular Karen National Union and, despite a swelling of its ranks following anti-Muslim riots in the eighties, remains a very minor force. Extremist Muslim groups simply do not appear to exist in Burma.
But many feel it is only a matter of time.
“If the persecution continues,” says Ahmed, “Burma could become a breeding ground for terrorists.”