If Myanmar is known throughout the world today, it is not for the fabled “Burma” rice and teak, or its ornate Buddhist pagodas, but for the persecution of its Muslim minority, chiefly the Rohingyas, who were formerly known as Arakanese or Rakhine Muslims.
Ironically, anti-Muslim feelings and actions have surged with the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, after 50 years of rule by a military junta. Even more ironical and deeply disturbing is the fact that this is taking place also under the rule of pro-democracy icon and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Today, more than 150,000 Rohingyas are living in refugee camps and thousands have fled to other countries, principally to Bangladesh. But wherever they go, doors are slammed on their face. Along with Sri Lankan Tamils, the Rohingyas have the dubious distinction of being the only “boat people” from the South Asian region.
Muslim population in Myanmar
The Muslim population in Myanmar is varied, both racially and linguistically. In the north, in Rakhine state, formerly called Arakan, the Muslims are basically immigrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and speak Bengali. A majority in North Arakan, the Rohingyas trace their history to the 15th Century, though the bulk of the immigration took place after the establishment of British rule in Myanmar in the 19th Century. In South Arakan or South Rakhine, however, Myanmarese Buddhists are in majority.
In the southern part of Myanmar, the Muslims are of mixed origin, tracing their ancestry to a bewildering variety of ethnic groups from various parts of India, Iran and the Middle East. Those Indian Muslims who have Myanmarese blood are called Zerabadis. Many Myanmarese Muslims in the south sport Myanmarese names but that has not given them any protection.
Before the British established themselves in Myanmar after the First Anglo-Burman War in 1826, the Muslim population in the country was small, even in Arakan, which is close to Muslim-majority East Bengal. But the violent way in which the British took over Myanmar following the First and Second Anglo-Burma Wars (1826 and 1852 respectively), and the heavy Indian immigration which they encouraged as rulers, created anti-Indian feelings among the Myanmarese, who, unlike the immigrants, were also Buddhist.
It was as if the British had opened the floodgates to Indian immigration. At the turn of the 20th Century, annual arrivals had touched 250,000 and Yangon had become an Indian majority city. According to Anthony Ware of Deakin University of Australia, Yangon, which was a Buddhist town with innumerable pagodas and monasteries, became a multi-ethnic and multi-religious town in less than 50 years of British occupation.
Since the town had been burnt down completely during the 1852 war, and only major Buddhist shrines like the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas were allowed to stand, Yagon was laid out afresh by the British. In that process, shrines of non-Buddhist communities were built, vastly outnumbering Buddhist shrines.
With their places of worship having disappeared or pulled down to make way for development, the Myanmarese Buddhists of Yangon migrated virtually en masse to Upper Myanmar.
Buddhism and the Myanmarese were both marginalised simultaneously by British power. Their place was taken by Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, Jews, and others from all parts of India.
Marginalisation of Buddhism
The abolition of the Myanmarese kingdom by the British also contributed to the marginalisation of Buddhism as the king was seen as the embodiment of Buddhist power and as its protector. The Myanmarese Buddhist edifice had lost its cornerstone with the abolishing kingship.
It is therefore not surprising that Myanmarese nationalism kicked off with the establishment of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. Buddhist feelings ran quite high in 1938, when an Indian Muslim cleric made an anti-Muslim remark. Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims all over Myanmar. Malayalam speaking Moplah Muslim tea vendors in Myanmarese railway stations, a fixture in Myanmar railways, made easy targets. Thousands were forced to flee to their native Kerala.
When World War II spread to Myanmar in 1942, most Indians fled to India but the Muslims stayed on. To fight the Japanese invader, the British formed a local resistance group called the V Force in Arakan and recruited Arakan or Rakhine Muslims for it. The Buddhists of Myanmar and Rakhine tended to be pro-Japanese and had formed the Burma Independence Army to fight alongside the Japanese who had promised to make Myanmar an independent country after the war.
In the event, this war-time division triggered a Buddhist-Muslim war in which the majority of the victims were the non-militarised Muslim and Buddhist populations of Arakan or Rakhine.
As the British were clearing out of the Indian sub-continent in the late 1940s, a largely Hindu India and a largely Muslim Pakistan were going to be formed and Myanmar was going to be independent with a Buddhist majority to boot. At this time, the Muslims of Arakan or Rakhine started a movement to get their area attached to Pakistan as East Bengal was to become East Pakistan. This exacerbated relations between the Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar.
But the Muslim movement failed because Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected the plea for accession in order not to annoy Myanmarese nationalist leaders.
However, the Rakhine Muslims were unfazed. They started a Jehadi movement to secure independence for Rakhine. This eventually became the most fiercely contested separatist movement in Myanmar after independence in 1948. It was finally put down by force in the 1960s by the military government led by Gen. Ne Win.
During the 50-year rule of Myanmar by a military junta, the communal situation was kept under control even as the regime actively promoted the Mynamarisation and “Buddhistisation” of the country. Most of the remaining Indians, barring the Muslims, fled as a result of this.
Vote bank politics
However, when democracy was being restored in phases, the Muslims of south Myanmar, who seemed to be getting along the Myanmarese Buddhists, gradually began to feel the heat. Democracy, even in its incipient phase, had unleashed the politics of numbers and the Buddhist majority saw the need for maintaining its numerical superiority and also for using it to capture and retain power.
The Muslims were portrayed as an ever-increasing group based on the belief that that they had at least four wives and that they encroached on the Buddhist population by marrying and converting Buddhist females.
When ex-General Thein Sein was in power, he brought in a law to govern inter-faith marriage, family size, religious freedom and conversion to other religions. The “Ma Ba Tha” (Association for the Protection of Race Religion) movement, led by the vitriolic monk Ven. Ashin Wirathu, praised President Sein for this, even though it was campaigning for the full restoration of democracy to fully unleash Buddhist power.
Intense anti-Muslim propaganda led to riots in 2012 and 2014. By the time Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi came to full power in 2016, Wirathu’s movement had become the strongest in the country with branches in 250 of the 330 townships in Myanmar and thousands of followers. By this time, the Muslims had also begun to be seen as local representatives of the world-wide Jehadi or Wahabi movement and as a security threat to the country as well as Buddhism.
Meanwhile, efforts to marginalise and push out the Rakhine Muslims had progressed. Way back in 1982 itself, the Rakhine Muslims had been entered as “Stateless Bengali Muslims” in the census. Since the 1990s, they have become refugees in their own country and also abroad. 150,000 of them are presently in refugee camps and several had tried to flee to countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan (Karachi) and India.
But nowhere are these people welcome. Bangladesh, which has had to bear the brunt, put them up in a previously uninhabited island called Thengar Char, which is accessible only in winter and is a refuge for pirates.
Attempts to get the Aung San Suu Kyi Government to take back the Rohingyas and stop the violence against them by Buddhist extremist-inspired Myanmarese mobs drew no response from Suu Kyi. She would dismiss these pleas by saying simply: “We have other priorities” or “There is another side to the story”.
The US and human rights groups have highlighted the plight of the Rakhine Muslims or Rohingyas as they are called generally now. But to no avail. Apparently, the Western powers do not want to pressurise Aung San Suu Kyi so as not to push her towards China. The military junta which ruled Myanmar before her, had been very pro-China and had kept the West out of Myanmar. Suu Kyi had reversed this. The West had rewarded her for her pro-West leanings by giving her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
With emerging Asian power China not interested in human rights, the West and India indifferent to their plight, and Bangladesh having shut the door to them, the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is likely to continue unabated.
(The featured picture at the top shows Rohingya boat people pleading for mercy)