By Kyaw Zwa
The dawn of Muslim settlements and propagation of Islam has been widely documented by Arab, Persian, European and Chinese travelers of the ninth century AD.
The current population of Burmese Muslims are the descendants of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Moors, Indians, Chinese and Malays, who settled and intermarried with local Burmese and many ethnic Burmese groups such as Kachin, Kaya, Kayin, Chin etc
By the term Burmese Muslim, our meaning is: every Muslim who lives in Burma regardless of ethnicity, race, section or gender.
Burmese Muslims are citizens of Burma. Muslim leaders estimated approximately 20% of the population was Muslim in 2006 (source: Religious Freedom Report 2006). Historically Burmese Muslims have been living in Burma peacefully and harmoniously with other ethnic nationalities of Burma, and used to have a number of high-ranking officers in the Democratic Government.
The founding father of Burma, a predominantly Buddhist country, established the new nation as a tolerant and just one, where the minorities, both ethnic and religious, were completely free and equal as citizens and were permitted under the new constitution the freedom to practice their faiths and cultures without fear or favour.
This situation is no longer exists.
Persecution and Exclusion
After General Ne Win seized the power in 1962 Muslims have been deliberately and systematically excluded from governmental positions and hundreds of thousands of Muslims were forced to leave Burma in 1962.
Burmese Muslims have become third class inhabitants, who are no longer considered to be citizens. Under the brutal government of Burma Mosques and Muslim schools have been desecrated or destroyed all over the country. No new religious buildings have been permitted to be built. Publication and distribution of the holy Qur’an and other religious texts are not permitted.
In June 2005, authorities in Shwepyitha Township, Rangoon Division, arrested eight Muslims, including the Imam of the community, and charged them with holding group prayers at the Imam’s house.
Instigation of Riots and Propaganda
Successive Burmese regimes have encouraged or instigated violence against Muslims as a way of diverting the public’s attention away from economic or political concerns. Mostly they use methods of creating rumours, such as Buddhist women being raped by Muslim men, that Muslims have put women’s sarong (Htamein) on statue of Buddha, etc.
The distribution of anti-Muslim leaflets also makes Buddhists angrier with Muslims, the authorities write false information in those leaflets saying that Muslims meet every Friday to try to make Buddhists convert to Islam. If a Muslim boy marries a Buddhist girl, he will receive financial support from the Mosque, if the girl is educated he will get more support.
Denial of Citizenship
Muslims in the country have difficulty obtaining birth certificates. A local official in Sittwe, Rakhine State, reportedly issued a verbal order in 2005 prohibiting the issuance of birth certificates to Muslim babies born in the area. In Rangoon, Muslims can usually obtain birth certificates for newborns, but local authorities refused to allow them to put names of the babies on their household registers.
National Registration Cards (NRC) are no longer issued to Burmese Muslims. Those who want an NRC must declare their religion as Buddhism on the card. Recently the authorities issued a completely different type of ID card to Muslims in an attempt to completely segregate them from others.
Muslims have become third class citizens.
If you travel in Burma from one place to another you must obtain an ID card. If you do not have one you would face hardship, you have to bribe authorities if you want to continue your journey. Muslims have to pay more than other people who could not show their ID cards on their journey. Sometimes they cannot proceed with their journey.
Discrimination in the Workplace and in Schools
There are many more cases of discrimination in the work place as well as in the military. Muslims are not allowed in the military if they do not change their faith, not only the Burmese Muslim officers, but also their wives have to change to Buddhism if they want to keep their jobs. Dr Maung Di was an education minister who turned to Buddhism to maintain his rank under the Burmese Socialist Program Party of General Ne Win.
In public schools nationwide, all students are required to recite a daily Buddhist prayer. While some Muslim students are permitted to leave the room during this time, some schools require non-Buddhist students to recite the prayer.
In June 2005, authorities forced a Muslim private tutor in Rangoon to close down his school. Although he was teaching only the public school curriculum, authorities accused him of trying to convert children to Islam because he was offering free courses. Authorities also arrested a Muslim cleric in South Dagon Township, Rangoon Division, for holding private Qur’an courses for Muslim children at his house.
Anti-Muslim movements have always been a nightmare for Burmese Muslims. Burmese Muslims have been a major target the government’s instigation of the divide and rule policy. Anti-Muslim activities have been significantly increased since the year 2000. Nearly one thousand Muslim houses and over 30 Mosques were destroyed in the past 6 years during five constant religious riots.
We need mutual understanding and trust
Mutual understanding and trust is similar to a bi-molecular concept where one cannot be separated from the other. On one hand, the military leaders in power must trust all the opposition parties that are inside as well as outside of Burma, the ethnic armed groups and the religious groups including Muslims.
To highlight one point, the military must remember that Muslims are also Burmese, or other indigenous ethnicities of their respective areas. They (Muslims) should not be able to forgive, forget and trust the present military people in power to create a mutual understanding. Military in power must realize that without people’s power, so called “Power” is nothing but a threat and an act of bullying.
In order to get the people’s trust and to create a genuine mutual understanding, they (military) must abide by the rule of law, pay due respect to their fellow countrymen, safeguard the country, and above all, their actions must be according to their words, in another words their promises must be kept and fulfilled.
Today our country has reached a critical state where we must love, trust and cooperates with each other to save our beloved country, or she will perish to doom. There is actually no other alternative. We have fought for half a century without success. Our country only suffered because of our fighting.
All these problems are because of this military regime. The regime not only prevents, but also creates these problems, to divert people’s attention from the worsening economic and political situation.
- We are from Burma, we love our country and we want to live there peacefully and harmoniously.
- We simply wish to co-exist in our beloved country under a democratic government.
- We want to practice our religion without fear or discrimination.
PLEASE HELP US ACHIEVE THIS.
_ adapted from the paper presented to the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma.
Burmese Muslim Association (BMA)