As Rakhine burns, Muslims in Myanmar ponder fate

Many feel sidelined or fear for their safety as resentment grows among Buddhist majority

At the time of writing, more than 120,000 Rohingya - dubbed the world's most-persecuted people - have fled the state of Rakhine in Myanmar's west.

Condemnation of the government, especially state counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been almost universal.

The country's minorities - including the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin and 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 public life in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Various rulers, including King Mindon in the 19th century, 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 Burma, the administration was unequivocally British and managed from Calcutta and later Delhi.

The territory was also extremely valuable commercially. Timber, precious stones and petroleum drew foreign capital and labour deep into the heart of what had been a proud Burmese polity.

Also, Marwari and Chettiar merchants from the Indian subcontinent soon realised the vast potential for rice cultivation, turning Burma in a matter of years into a major rice-exporting region.

Muslims flocking to the Cholia Jame Mosque in Yangon for Friday prayers. Although a minority in Myanmar, the Muslim community has long been an integral part of public life in Myanmar. PHOTO: KPA GROUP

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 the population of Rangoon, now Yangon, was Indian. This deepened the resentment of native Burmese, who saw the newcomers - many of whom happened to be Muslim - as intruders. This in turn led to anti-immigrant riots in the city. WWII and the violence thereafter prompted many millions of Indians to leave. Still, many remained.


In smaller towns, there are signs 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. 

KYAW, a Muslim and a veteran businessman with financial interests in Myanmar and overseas.

For Myanmar's millions of Muslims today, the violence in Rakhine is deeply unsettling. Interestingly, official figures say the Muslim minority represents only 3 to 4 per cent of the population, but non-governmental organisations feel the figure is nearer 12 to 13 per cent.

Whatever it is, the Muslim minority, highly visible and densely packed in downtown Yangon, is also spread across the interior, with mosques in small cities and towns such as Bago, Mawlamyine and Meiktila.

International attention is rightly focused on the Rakhine situation, but it is important to remember that not all Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya, even though 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.

Given recent events, I contacted Muslim Burmese friends to get a sense of how they viewed things. To protect them, I have changed their names in some instances. Former truck driver U Tin Win, 71, is a Muslim in Myanmar and struggles to obtain papers for his grandchildren.

When he was contacted, it seemed 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."

Others fear for their own safety. Chit (not his real name), a Myanmar 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 obviously 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 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 is in her early 20s, is pessimistic about the prospects of her people. "Buddhists aren't allowed to buy or sell land from Muslims. Ma Ba Tha (a 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 Muslims, 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 was that there was relatively little bitterness among my Myanmar Muslim friends against Ms Suu Kyi, who has come under fire internationally. Even though 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 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."

In contrast, Naing says: "She and the National League for Democracy (NLD) don't have the power to change what is happening. She is doing her best."

Taxi driver Chit is even appreciative of NLD: "I think their response to the Rakhine violence is very fair. They are trying their hardest, and I believe they can resolve the issue."

Kyaw argues: "If they 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 Ms Suu Kyi and NLD as their only hope. But given the government's lack of action over the violence in Rakhine, their goodwill could very well be forlorn.

  • The writer is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and chief executive of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest in his long-running Ceritalah Asean column.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline 'As Rakhine burns, Muslims in Myanmar ponder fate'. Print Edition | Subscribe