Burma Time By Nurul Islam : 14 March 2015
Burma is home to numerous ethnic nationalities. Burma official information shows that 4 percent population practices Islam. But “Burma’s statistics are not reliable, and many millions of Arakan Muslims or Rohingya are not included in these statistics.”1 Some-times, Muslims themselves prefer to hide their religious affiliation to circumvent disapproval. However, Muslim population can be conveniently estimated to be 12-15 percent of the Burma’s population of about 55 million.
Muslims in Burma are dispersed geographically and are highly diverse in ethnicity:– Rohingya in Arakan, Putonghua (Mandarin) speaking Panthay or Chinese Muslims in northeastern Burma, Malay speaking Pashu in Kawthaung in southern Tenansarin, and Burmese speaking Bama Muslim or Burmese Muslims (sometimes called Pathi) mainly in cites with some pockets in lower and central Burma. Rohingya speak a language similar to what is spoken in southern Chittagong region of Bangladesh, mixed primarily with words from the Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Arabic languages. The “Traditional Homeland” of Rohingya, in North Arakan is the largest Muslim concentration. Rohingya population is estimated to be 3.5 million, including a Rohingya diaspora of around 1.6 million persons.
Since 8th century Islam spread and deeply rooted in Arakan from where it spread into interior Burma.2 “…Beginning in the sixteenth century, Burmese kings settled Muslim prisoners, refugees and soldiers in central Burma. Chinese Muslims, referred to as Panthay, arrived in Burma as early as thirteenth century, and greatest numbers in the late nineteenth century following the Ch’ing government’s crushing of the Islamic sultanate in Yunnan.”3 On the whole “the current Muslim population of Burma are descendants of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Moors, Indian-Muslims, Sheikhs, Pakistanis, Pathans, Bengalis, Chinese Muslims and Malays who settled and intermarried with local Burmese and many Burma’s ethnic groups such as Rakhine, Shan, Karen, Mon etc.” 4
Arakan was virtually ruled by Muslims from 1430 to 1531.5 From 1430 to 1645, for a period of more than two hundred years the Arakanese Buddhist kings took Muslim titles and used Muslim names in their coins. They followed Muslim traditions and culture at home. There were Prime Ministers, War/Defence Ministers and other efficient ministers, high civil and military officers and celebrated court poets who were Muslims and who had served the kingdom. They contributed a great deal to the growth of Islamic culture in Arakan. In fact, the heyday of Arakan began with the influence and spread of Muslim civilization there. It was Muslims who developed the agriculture in Arakan and they were the backbone of its economy. The Muslims had also served the Burmese kings playing phenomenal roles.
Historically, Muslims have often been the targets of communal violence, especially under the military government that has ruled since 1962. The ruling civil-military hybrid government of Thein Sein is the worst, and it has carried crimes against humanity and atrocity crimes against the Rohingyas and other Muslims.
Generally all groups of Muslims in Burma have become unwanted. They are not considered to be citizens, not issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), not accepted for government services. Chronically they face physical and ideological assaults from government and non-state actors including Buddhist monks. Particularly the Muslim Rohingyas are rendered stateless in their own homeland, denied their basic freedoms, including freedom of movement, education, marriage, access to healthcare, adequate food and humanitarian aids. Many hundreds of mosques and madrassahs were demolished or closed down all over the country. A number of religious sites of historical importance, including the ancient Sandi Kahn mosque built in 1433 in Arakan by an Arakan king, were razed to the ground.
Genocidal Onslaughts against Muslims
From June-October 2012 series of state sponsored and condoned organized deadly violence, genocidal massacres, arson attacks and destructions were carried out against Rohingya in Arakan by Buddhist Rakhine Maghs. In 2013 similar bloodshed and destructions were also carried out by Buddhist extremists against Bama/Burmese Muslims in the city of Meiktila and other places.
An estimated 4000 Rohingya and other Muslims were killed, drowned and missing; many hundreds of Muslim women were raped, large Muslim settlements with mosques and madrassahs were devastated, closed down; at least 2000 innocent Muslims were arrested, about 150,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Arakan are still confined to concentration camps and are starving to death, while many thou-sands of Burmese Muslim communities are dispersed in Burma proper. Those who identified as Rohingya were excluded from the latest UN sponsored census. Now they are being pressurized to denounce their ethnic identity “Rohingya”.
More than two years have lapsed there is no improvement of human right situation of Muslims. The racial hatred and Islamophobia is spreading like a cancer all across Burma. The ‘969’ ultra-Buddhist nationalist movement led by controversial monk U Wirathu have fanned the flames of intolerance and fabricated stories of rape and Muslim’s plot to dominate Burma in order to incite anti-Muslim violence. Wirathu opposes anyone supporting the genuine case and cause of the persecuted Rohingya or Muslims. Recently, in a mass assembly, he insulted the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, calling her a ‘whore’ and a ‘bitch’. His “sexist” and “insulting” language against Ms. Lee has been strongly condemned. How President Thein Sein praised Wirathu, a morally bankrupt monk, as son of God, whereas the famous monks U Pandavunsa and U Thawbita said that promoting hate speech is against the code of ethics of Buddhist monks and that his words could hurt Buddhism very badly.”
Burma should guarantee human rights and freedom, including total religious freedom, to all Muslims. They should be treated justly on “equal terms”. The Rohingya should be allowed to coexist as equals in Arakan with full citizenship and ethnic rights. On top of that they require “collective rights” as a people. for their protection and humanitarian assistance is vital. An international investigation to the atrocity crimes perpetrated against Rohingya and other Muslims and ethnic peoples is imperative.
1 J.A. Berlie, “The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslim”, White Lotus Co., Ltd, G.P.O. Box 1141, Bangkok 10501, Thailand, p.1
2 “Sasana Ronwa Htunzepho” in Burmese , official publication of the military government, SLORC about the religions in Burma, 1997,
3 “Voice of Islam in Southeast Asia”, compiled by edited by Greg Fealy and Virginia Hooker, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2006, pp.23-24.
4 “The Muslims of Burma”, A Study of a Minority Group, by Moshe Yegar, 1972, Otto Harrzssowitz Wiesbaden, pp.31-32.
5 “The Coming of Muslims to Burma, 1700 AD”, A paper presented by Colonel Bashin, Chairman of the Burma Historical Commission, at a Seminar held in Azad Bhavan, New Delhi, in 1961, p.4.
The current condition has made Burma a “tinderbox”. International response to the needs of the vulnerable Muslims