At the time of writing, more than 120,000 Rohingya—dubbed the world’s most-persecuted people—have fled the Rakhine state in Myanmar’s west.
Global condemnation of the Myanmar Government—especially its State Counsellor and de facto leader—Aung San Suu Kyi (or ASSK) has been almost universal.
Myanmar's minorities–including the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin and the Muslims–have long faced a troubled and at times bloody relationship with the dominant Burmese or “Bama” majority who inhabit the core Irrawaddy Delta.
Still, Muslims have long been an integral part of Burmese public life. Various rulers over the centuries, including King Mindon, encouraged Muslim settlement and mosque-building, seeing the community as an important source of commercial activity and revenue.
However, the British defeat of the Konbaung dynasty was to have a searing impact on Burmese consciousness – engendering a deeply-rooted sense of xenophobia. Unlike in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the colonial authorities chose to govern through local Sultans, in Myanmar the administration was unequivocally British and managed from Calcutta and later Delhi.
Myanmar was also an extremely valuable territory commercially. Timber, precious stones and petroleum drew foreign capital and labour deep into the heart of what had been a proud Burmese polity. Moreover, Marwari and Chettiar traders and moneylenders from the Subcontinent soon realized the immense potential for rice cultivation, turning Burma within a matter of years into a major rice-exporting region.
To cut costs, the same businessmen imported labour from nearby Bengal – suppressing domestic wages and displacing countless local farmers.
By World War II, almost half of Rangoon’s (Yangon’s) population was Indian.
This deepened the resentment of native Burmese who viewed the newcomers – many of whom happened to be Muslim—as intruders.
This led in turn to anti-immigrant riots in Rangoon. WWII and the violence thereafter prompted many millions of Indians to leave Rangoon. However, many remained.
For Myanmar's millions of Muslims today, the violence in Rakhine is deeply unsettling. Interestingly, official figures state that the Muslim minority represents only 3—4% of the population whilst NGOs feel the figure is closer to 12—13%.
Whatever it is, the Muslim minority whilst highly-visible and densely-packed in downtown Yangon is also spread across the interior with mosques in small cities and towns like Bago, Mawlamyine and Meiktila.
So, while international attention is rightly focused on the Rakhine situation, it’s important to remember that not all Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya, although their situation can sometimes be just as precarious.
Many complain about formal and informal discrimination, including the use of the term “kalar” (which is seen as derogatory) by non-Muslims against them.
Official figures state that the Muslim minority in Myanmar represents only 3-4% of the population whilst NGO's feel the figure is closer to 12-13%. Karim Raslan
Inside the Cholia Jame Mosque in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.
Burmese Muslim men of all ages flock the Cholia Jame Mosque in downtown Yangon during the obligatory Friday prayers.
Myanmar's minorities have long faced a troubled relationship with the dominant Burmese or “Bama” majority who inhabit the core Irrawaddy Delta.
When contacted, it would appear that the problem had not abated: “Even my uncle who works as a customs officer can’t get an ID card. He lost it and despite having all the necessary documents, still hasn’t received a new one because he is Muslim.”
For others, the fear is over their safety.
Chit (not his real name), a Burmese Muslim in his early 30s, works as a taxi driver in Yangon where there are many mosques and Muslims. Despite that, he often feels insecure.
“Everywhere in Myanmar, Buddhists think Muslims are terrorists who are trying to overthrow the government. There is a lot of fake news on social media spreading this propaganda. That’s how violent sentiments spread outside the Rakhine state.”
“Fortunately, I don’t look overtly Muslim, so I can get by without too much hassle.”
In Myanmar, “looking Muslim” means being dark-skinned, having Indian features, and being bearded for men or wearing the hijab for women.
Naing (not her real name), a Muslim Burmese resident of Meiktila has graver concerns.
“There was a fight between a Muslim and a Buddhist a few weeks ago. In one village called Chan Aye, soldiers imposed a night curfew and are guarding the place very tightly. Hopefully, the violence from Rakhine will not spread here.”
Naing, who's in her early 20s, is pessimistic about the prospects of her people.
“Buddhists aren’t allowed to buy or sell land from Muslims. The Ma Ba Tha (the movement of extremist Buddhist monks) will stop it. Some months ago, they almost killed a Muslim man and destroyed his house for buying his land from a Buddhist.”
The discrimination affects even well-to-do Muslim Burmese, like Kyaw (not his real name), a veteran businessman with financial interests in Myanmar and overseas.
“I attended a high-level diplomatic course where ministers and ambassadors were also present. They used ‘kalar’ there to refer to Burmese Muslims. TV shows and movies use the word all the time. The racism is everywhere.”
“In smaller towns, there are signs that are displayed outside shops to show which businesses are Buddhist owned, so they can discriminate against us. To make deals, I have to use Buddhist proxies, otherwise I would never survive.”
What surprised me is that there was relatively little bitterness among my Burmese Muslim friends against ASSK, who has come under fire internationally. While she has already broken her long silence over the matter, the fact remains that nothing has been done to stop the violence.
U Tin Win, for instance, wholeheartedly believes that she will champion Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. It should be noted that the said document includes the clause: “We, the National people, firmly resolve that we shall uphold racial equality, living eternally in unity fostering the firm Union Spirit of true patriotism.”
Naing, on the other hand, feels that: “The NLD and ASSK don’t have the power to change what is happening. She is doing her best.”
The taxi driver Chit is even appreciative of the NLD: “I think the NLD and ASSK’s response to the Rakhine violence is very fair. They are trying their hardest and I believe they can solve the issue.”
Kyaw argues that: “If they (ASSK and the NLD) speak out, they will lose support. I am sure that behind the scenes they are working to help Burmese Muslims and the Rohingya live peacefully.”
Myanmar’s Muslims are in a complex, delicate situation. They know all too well that they could be “next” in the crosshairs of the extremists after the Rohingya.
Many see ASSK and the NLD as their only hope.
But given the government’s inaction over the violence in Rakhine, their goodwill could very well be forlorn.