Burma's Muslims: Terrorists or Terrorised?


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Burma’s Muslims: Terrorists or Terrorised?
By Andrew Selth — Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No.150,The Australian National University, Australia. August 2003.

Burma’s importance in world affairs has long derived from its critical geo-strategic position. Another factor now attracting the interest of Western scholars and officials is Burma’s large Muslim population. Usually overlooked in surveys of Islarn in the Asia-Pacific region, Burma’s Muslims have long suffered from discriminatiory and harsh treatment at the hands of the country’s military government. This has prompted the creation of several armed insurgent groups. The increased attention now being paid to the Muslim community in Burma, however, is mainly due to its growing international connections, which in the case of one insurgent group at least includes direct links to pan-Islamic extremist organisations.

While the relationships between some Burmese Muslims and intemational terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ]emaah Islamiah have often been exaggerated, and at times even deliberately misrepresented, they are likely to attract even greater interest from the US government and its allies. In this regard/ the global war against terrorism launched in 2001 has become both a burden and an opportunity for the Rangoon regime.

Muslims in Burma

Sixty per cent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims live in Asia. Two hundred million are found in Southeast Asia. In tL countries they constitute an outright majority (the five Central Asian states, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia). In six others (India, China, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Burma) they constitute a politically important religious minority. Overwhelmingly followers of Sunni Islam, Burma’s Muslims can be broadly divided into four distinct communities. Each has a very different relationship with the Buddhist majority and with the military government in Rangoon.

The longest established Muslim group in Burma traces its origins back to the 13ft and 14th centuries, when their forebears arrived in Burma as traders, court servants and mercenaries. Mostly of Arab, Persian and Indian ethnicity, these early arrivals often married local Buddhist women and settled down in Burma. Those who subsequently left the country were obliged to leave their families behind. From the 16 th. century onwards, following campaigns against the coastal kingdoms of Pegu and Arakan, successive Burmese rulers began to settle Muslim prisoners in Upper Burma, around Shwebo. (These villages still exist today). In return for service in the royal army, other Muslims were given land in places like Sagaing, Yamethin and Kyaukse.

A number subsequently attained eminence in the Burmese court, acting as administrators and interpreters.3o These Muslims and their descendants spoke Burmese, dressed as Burmese and considered themselves Burmese, but still followed Islam. Under the Burmese kings they were known as Pathi, or KaIa. They later became known as Zerbadee. They prefer the name’Burman Muslims’, a term which was officially accepted by the colonial government in 1941. There is also a small Chinese Muslim community in the northeast of Burma, known as the Panthay.  Its members are remnants of a once-powerful Islamic Sultanate that was established in Yunnan during the mid19 th. century.

A major influx of Muslims occurred after the United Kingdom annexed Burma in three wars, waged between 1824 and 1886. By making the country part of British India, the new government encouraged large numbers of immigrants, casual labourers, civil servants and merchants from South Asia. Most established homes and businesses in the colonial capital, in population centres like Moulmein, Pyinmana and Kyaukse, and along the main transport corridors. When Ne Win’s military government nationalized the Burmese economy in 1963 and introduced tough new citizenship laws, several hundred thousand South Asians, including many Muslims, departed for lndia and Pakistan. However, a sizeable community remains in modem Burma.

The fourth and largest Muslim community in Burma today is that of the Rohingyas. These are Bengali Muslims who live in Arakan State, on Burma’s western coast facing the Bay of Bengal.ao A few Muslims trace their ancestry back to an independent Arakanese kingdom that existed in the region during the 15th and 16th centuries. Its rulers enjoyed mixed relations with Muslim Bengal but employed many Muslims as adrninistrators and soldiers.al The kingdom was conquered by King Bodawpaya and incorporated into a unified Burma late in the 18th century. (His army contained a unit of Burmese Muslims who later settled in Arakan). There has always been traffic between Arakan and Bengal, but most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For many years Arakan was administered as part of the British Province of Bengal. There was another influx of migrants after the Second World War, and a number of large-scale population movements have occurred since, usually coinciding with economic or  political crises in Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947 and the independent Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh in 1971). In 1986 Muslim Rohingyas were estimated to constitute about 56 per cent of the population of Arakan. By 1992, this proportion had risen to 70 per cent of the State’s estimated 4 million people.

A key difference between the Muslim communities of Burma, and those of other regional countries, is that Islam was not imposed by external actors. Despite periodic conflicts with its neighbours, Burma was never the target of any powerful Muslim state wishing to spread its religion. For better and for worse, the proximity of Muslim Bengal left its mark on Arakan, but Islam failed to reach the heart of the country.

The Rohingyas —  Despite their numbers (up to two million in the country), the Rohingyas have always been the poorest and least established of the four main Muslim groups in Burma. They have consistently been denied the citizenship status they have desired, as well as the schools, roads and hospitals that they have periodically sought from Rangoon. They have also been the most persecuted by the military movement.

As in all matters relating to community sentiment, it is risky to generalize, but feelings between most Buddhists in Arakan State (who call themselves Rakhine) and the Rohingyas run deep. The Rhakine look back to the days of the Buddhist Arakan kingdom, which at one stage expanded westwards to drive the Muslims out of Dhaka. The Rohingyas, on the other hand, remember the strong Muslim influence exercised on the Arakan kingdom by Bengal. Both communities recall the chaotic British retreat from Burma in 1942, when Indians fleeing the Japanese were set upon by local gangs, and a ’bitter internecine struggle for land and power’ broke out between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.  As one writer later noted, ’the result was one of the bloodiest communal riots in South Asian annals’.

 The British later recruited many Arakanese Muslims into ’V’ Force, to gather intelligence and conduct raids against the Japanese and their Burmese allies. This ’treachery’ has not been forgotten by the Rhakine. Also, while sharing many of the hardships caused by Rangoon’s neglect of Arakan over the years, the Rhakine still view Rohingya demands for increased government resources with suspicion. Any roads, schools or hospitals which are built to meet the needs of the Rohingyas are seen to be at the expense of facilities for the rest of the population.

Most Buddhists in Arakan do not see the growth of the Muslim community as a political or security threat, so much as an economic, social and cultural problem. This has still meant, however, that whenever the police and armed forces have launched pogroms against the Rohingyas, they have received enthusiastic support from many local Rhakine. It is estimated that successive Burmese governments have carried out at least 20 (not 13) major armed operations against the Rohingyas since 1948. The security forces have brutalised community members in Arakan State, driven them off their land, closed their religious schools and burnt down their mosques. ln 1975 about 15,000 Rohingyas fled into neighbouring Bangladesh to escape persecution. In 1978 a massive military operation, code-named Naga Min (Dragon King), forced another 200,000 Rohingyas to follow them. This operation included the forced relocation of Muslim villagers and was accompanied by widespread looting, rape, arson and the desecration of mosques. The regime later blamed these depredations on ’rampaging Bengali mobs’. Many refugees, even some housed in the 20 or more recognised camps near the border and east of Cox’s Bazaar, starved to death.

On this occasion, the Rangoon regime bowed to international pressure and, after lengthy negotiations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the SLORC reluctantly accepted the repatriation of all the Rohingyas who had flecl. Many were later resettled in Arakan State, but similar operations were staged in 1989, 1991-1992 and again in 2002. Once again, there were numerous reports of human rights violations by the security forces. After the 1991 pogroms, about 250,000 victims sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh. Since 1992 about 230,000 Rohingyas have been voluntarily repatriated to Burma under the auspices of the United Nations, but serious problems remain. There are still about 21,000 refugees in two camps south of Cox’s Bazaar, and even more in small scattered settlements along the border.


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