Persecution of Muslims in Myanmar

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Religion in Burma (Pew 2010)[1]

  Buddhism (80%)
  Protestantism (5%)
  Islam (4%)
  Catholicism (2%)
  Hinduism (2%)
  Other (1%)

Myanmar has a Buddhist majority. The Muslim minority in Myanmar are the descendants of Muslim immigrants from India (including what is now Bangladesh) and China (the ancestors of Chinese Muslims in Myanmar came from the Yunnan province), as well as descendants of earlier Arab settlers and the recognised Kamein minority and the Rohingya people, intermarried with local races of Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch the Burmese government has denied citizenship to any Rohingya persons who cannot prove their ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of what is now Arakan State.[2]


Muslims have lived in Burma since the 11th century AD. The first Muslim documented in Burmese history (recorded in Hmannan Yazawin or Glass Palace Chronicle) was Byat Wi during the reign of Mon, a Thaton King, circa 1050 AD.[3] The two sons of Byat Wi's brother Byat Ta, known as Shwe Byin brothers, were executed as children either because of their Islamic faith, or because they refused forced labour.[4] It was clearly recorded in the Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma that they were no longer trusted.[5] During a time of war, King Kyansittha sent a hunter as a sniper to assassinate him.[6][7]

Pre-modern persecution[edit]

The Burmese king Bayinnaung (1550–1581 AD) imposed restrictions upon his Muslim subjects.[8] In 1559 AD, after conquering Bago (Pegu), Bayinnaung banned Islamic ritual slaughter, thereby prohibiting Muslims from consuming halal meals of goats and chicken. He also banned Eid al-Adha and Qurbani, regarding killing animals in the name of religion as a cruel custom.[9]

In the 17th century, Indian Muslims residing in Arakan were massacred. These Muslims had settled with Shah Shuja, who had fled India after losing the Mughal war of succession. Initially, the Arakan pirate king Sandathudama (1652–1687 AD) who was the local pirate of Chittagong and Arakan, allowed Shuja and his followers to settle there. But a dispute arose between Sandatudama and Shuja, and Shuja unsuccessfully attempted to rebel. Sandathudama killed most of Shuja's followers, though Shuja himself escaped the massacre.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

King Alaungpaya (1752–1760) prohibited Muslims from practising the Islamic method of killing cattle.[17]

King Bodawpaya (1782–1819) arrested four prominent Burmese Muslim Imams from Myedu and killed them in Ava, the capital, after they refused to eat pork.[18] According to the Myedu Muslim and Burma Muslim version, Bodawpaya later apologised for the killings and recognised the Imams as saints.[18][19]

British rule[edit]

As of 1921, the population of Muslims in Burma was around 500,000.[20] During British rule, Burmese Muslims were seen as "Indian", as the majority of Indians living in Burma were Muslims, even though the Burmese Muslims were different from Indian Muslims. Thus, Burmese Muslims, Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were collectively known as "kala". The term "Kala" roughly translates to black and used as racially pejorative way to describe them.:[21]

After World War I, there was an upsurge in anti-Indian sentiments.[22] There were several causes of anti-Indian and anti-Muslim sentiments in Burma. In India, many Buddhists had been persecuted by the Mughal empire. There was significant job competition between Indian migrants, who were willing to do unpleasant jobs for low income, and the native Burmese. The Great Depression intensified this competition, aggravating anti-Indian sentiment.[21][23]

In 1930, anti-Indian riots were sparked by a labour issue at the Yangon port. After Indian workers at the port went on strike, the British firm Stevedores tried to break the strike by hiring Burmese workers. Realizing they'd lose their jobs, the Indian workers returned to work, and Stevedores then laid off the recently hired Burmese workers. The Burmese workers blamed Indian workers for their loss of jobs, and a riot broke out. At the port, at least 200 Indian workers were massacred and dumped into the river. Authorities fired upon armed rioters who refused to lay down their weapons, under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The riots rapidly spread throughout Burma, targeting Indians and Muslims.[21]

In 1938, anti-Muslim riots again broke out in Burma. Moshe Yegar writes that the riots were fanned by anti-British and nationalistic sentiments, but were disguised as anti-Muslim so as not to provoke a response by the British. Nevertheless, the British government responded to the riots and demonstrations. The agitation against Muslims and the British was led by Burmese newspapers.[24][25]

Another riot started after a marketplace scuffle between Indians and Burmese. During the "Burma for Burmese" campaign, a violent demonstration took place in Surti Bazaar, a Muslim area.[26] When the police, who were ethnically Indian, tried to break up the demonstration, three monks were injured. Images of monks being injured by policemen who happened to be Indian were circulated by Burmese newspapers, provoking riots.[27] Muslim properties, including shops and houses were looted. Muslims were assaulted and even killed. 113 mosques were damaged.[28]

On 22 September 1938, the British Governor set up the Inquiry Committee to investigate the riots.[29] It was determined that the discontent was caused by the deterioration in sociopolitical and economic condition of Burmese.[30] This report itself was used to incite sectarianism by Burmese newspapers.[31]

Japanese rule[edit]

During World War II, the Japanese passed easily through the areas under Rohingyas.[32] [sources cited do not support this claim].[33][34] Defeated, 40,000 Rohingyas eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.[35]

Muslims under General Ne Win[edit]

When General Ne Win came to power in 1962, the status of Muslims changed. For example, Muslims were expelled from the army.[36] The more pious Muslim communities who segregated themselves from the Buddhist majority faced greater difficulties than those who integrated and forfeited their observance of Islamic laws.[36]

The anti-Buddhist actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan (the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan) was also used as a pretext to commit violence against Muslims in Burma by Buddhist mobs. Human Rights Watch reports that there was mounting tension between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Taungoo for weeks before it erupted into violence in the middle of May 2001. Buddhist monks demanded that the Hantha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in "retaliation" for the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.[37]

Religious freedom for Muslims is reduced. Monitoring and control of Islam undermines the free exchange of thoughts and ideas associated with religious activities.[38] Accusations of "terrorism" are made against Muslim organisations such as the All Burma Muslim Union.[39]

It is widely feared that persecution of Muslims in Burma could foment Islamic extremism in the country.[36] Many Muslims have joined armed resistance groups who are fighting for greater freedoms in Burma.[40]

1997 Anti-Muslim Riots in Mandalay[edit]

The racial tension in March 1997 between Buddhists and Muslims and the attack on Muslim properties began during the renovation of a Buddha statue. The bronze Buddha statue in the Maha Myatmuni pagoda, originally from the Arakan, brought to Mandalay by King Bodawpaya in 1784 AD was renovated by the authorities. The Mahamyat Muni statue was broken open, leaving a gaping hole in the statue, and it was generally presumed that the regime was searching for the Padamya Myetshin, a legendary ruby that ensures victory in war to those who possess it.[41]

The unrest in Mandalay began after reports of an attempted rape of a girl by Muslim men, although this was later disproved and led to speculation that the regime may have orchestrated the incident to deflect anger from the damaged statue. At least three people were killed and around 100 monks arrested.[42]

2001 Anti-Muslim Riots in Taungoo[edit]

In 2001, Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Sa Yar (or) The Fear of Losing One's Race and many other anti-Muslim pamphlets were widely distributed by monks. Many Muslims feel that this exacerbated the anti-Muslim feelings that had been provoked by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.[43] On 15 May 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Taungoo, Pegu division, resulting in the deaths of about 200 Muslims, in the destruction of 11 mosques and the setting ablaze of over 400 houses. On 15 May, the first day of the anti-Muslim uprisings, about 20 Muslims who were praying in the Han Tha mosque were killed and some were beaten to death by the pro-junta forces. On 17 May, Lt. General Win Myint, Secretary No. 3 of the SPDC and deputy Home and Religious minister, arrived in Taungoo and curfew was imposed there until 12 July 2001.[44] Buddhist monks demanded that the ancient Han Tha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in retaliation for the destruction in Bamiyan.[45] On 18 May, the Han Tha mosque and Taungoo Railway station mosque were razed to the ground by bulldozers owned by the SPDC junta.[45] The mosques in Taungoo remained closed as of May 2002. Muslims have been forced to worship in their homes. Local Muslim leaders complain that they are still harassed. After the violence, many local Muslims moved away from Taungoo to nearby towns and to as far away as Yangon. After two days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended.[45]

2012 Rakhine State violence/riots[edit]

Since June 2012, at least 166 Muslims and Rakhine have been killed in sectarian violence in the state.[46][47][48]

2013 Anti-Muslim riots in Central Burma[edit]

Since March 2013, riots have flared up in various cities in central and eastern Burma. The violence has coincided with the rise of the 969 Movement which is a Buddhist nationalist movement against the influx of Islam in traditionally Buddhist Burma. Led by Sayadaw U Wirathu, "969" has claimed that he/they do not provoke attacks against Muslim communities, although some people have called him the Buddhist Bin Laden".[49] In an open letter, U Wirathu claims he treated both Beech[clarification needed] and photographer with hospitality, and that he "could see deceit and recognize his sweet words for all people's sake." In the letter, he claims he has respect for the Western media, but that the TIME reporter misinterpreted his peaceful intentions. “My preaching is not burning with hatred as you say,” U Wirathu says to Beech in his open letter. He goes on to say that he will “forgive the misunderstanding” if she is willing to do an about-face on the article. However, much of his public speeches focus on retaliation against Muslims for invading the country.[50]

Michael Jerryson, author of several books heavily critical of Buddhism's traditional peaceful perceptions, stated that, "The Burmese Buddhist monks may not have initiated the violence but they rode the wave and began to incite more. While the ideals of Buddhist canonical texts promote peace and pacifism, discrepancies between reality and precepts easily flourish in times of social, political and economic insecurity, such as Myanmar's current transition to democracy."[51]

2014 Mandalay Riots[edit]

In July a Facebook post emerged of a Buddhist woman being raped, supposedly by a Muslim man. In retaliation an angry, vengeful mob of 300 people started throwing stones and bricks at a tea stall. The mob went on to attack Muslim shops and vehicles and shouting slogans in Muslim residential areas.[52] Two men — one Buddhist and one Muslim — were killed. A curfew was imposed on 3 July.[53][54]

2016 Mosque burnings[edit]

In July police are reported to be guarding the village of Hpakant in Kachin state, after failing to stop Buddhist villagers setting the mosque ablaze.[55] Shortly after, a group of men destroyed a mosque in central Myanmar in a dispute over its construction.[56]

Human rights violations against Rohingya[edit]


Rohingya people in Rakhine State

The Rohingya Muslim are amongst the most persecuted minority group in the world. According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya Muslim people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result.[57][58] However, the reality is that the Rohingya people have been oppressed for many years prior to 1978, though arguably not as significant. They have lived in Myanmar for centuries but tensions with Myanmar's Buddhist majority have caused discrimination and harassment. Cases of rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and violence against Rohingya are commonplace, with many incidents going unreported as enforcement officers turn a blind eye. These perpetrators are not solely confined to the local population, but also include the authorities and law enforcers themselves. Tensions increased in 2012, when three Rohingya Muslim men were convicted of raping a local Rakhine Buddhist woman, which led to the 2012 Rakhine State riots.[59] There are currently over a million Rohingya people living in Myanmar, however, systemic oppression has led to an increase in migrations. In early 2015 alone, around 25,000 asylum-seekers, consisting of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, sailed out of the Rakhine State to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.[60] Aside from Bangladesh, majority of asylum-seekers also set out to other South-east Asian countries such as Thailand, but also to Malaysia and Indonesia, which are predominantly Muslim countries. Mass exoduses due to persecution and mass violence, such as the one in 2012, has happened before in 1978 and 1992, with many of the fleeing Rohingya people being marginalised and excluded in host States. They are often not recognised and not protected as refugees, and as a result, they live in extreme poverty, have to resort to illegal employment and are vulnerable to exploitation.[61]

Legal Framework

The Rohingya people have been denied Burmese citizenship since the Burmese nationality law (1982 Citizenship Act) was enacted.[62] The Government of Myanmar claims that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants who arrived during the British colonial era, and were originally Bengalis.[63] The Rohingya that are allowed to stay in Myanmar are considered 'resident foreigners' and not citizens. They are not allowed to travel without official permission and were previously required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children, though the law was not strictly enforced. Many Rohingya children cannot have their birth registered, thus rendering them stateless from the moment they are born. In 1995, the Government of Myanmar responded to UNHCR's pressure by issuing basic identification cards, which does not mention the bearer's place of birth, to the Rohingya.[64] Without proper identification and documents, the Rohingya people are officially stateless with no state protection and their movements are severely restricted. As a result, they are forced to live in squatter camps and slums.

International Conventions

Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma at the time, was one of the 48 countries that voted for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.[65] Article 2 of the UDHR states that "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." [66] Also, Article 5 of the UDHR states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." [67] However, the United Nations Convention against Torture which aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, around the world, has not been signed nor ratified by Myanmar, as of 2016.[68] In addition, Myanmar is also not a party to the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which aims to protect stateless individuals[69] or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that aims to ensure States respect individual's civil and political rights, which includes but are not limited to, the right to life and freedom of religion.[70][71]

That being said, a number of international treaties have been ratified or acceded to by Myanmar, namely the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), on 2 July 1997 and 15 July 1991 respectively.[72][73] There are slow but positive developments in recent years. For instance, Myanmar signed (but has not ratified) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which protects the right to education, the right to health, and the right to an adequate standard of living, on 16 July 2015.[74]

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism of the United Nations (UN) that reviews the human rights records of all UN member States. It is a unique process that is undertaken by the Human Rights Council, which allows each State to recognise key areas of human rights issue that has had progress in the country, and also to identify further steps and efforts that will be taken to meet their international obligations. As a member of the UN, Myanmar is obliged to be involved in the UPR process. On 23 December 2015, a Report of the Working Group on the UPR on Myanmar looked at the current human rights situation in Myanmar and noted that the Government of Myanmar has made positive advances in political, administrative, social and judicial reforms.[75] Nonetheless, many States, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, expressed concern about, amongst other things, human rights violations against the Rohingya people, as there were still much more room for improvement in this area. For instance, Bahrain expressed concern about ethnic purification and discrimination against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. It was also noted in the report that the ethnic rights protection law of 2015 would broaden the rights of all ethnic minorities in Myanmar. However, the Government of Myanmar reiterated their stance that there was no minority community in Myanmar under the name of "Rohingya". Nonetheless, the aftermath of the 2012 Rakhine State violence led to the formation of a Commission of Inquiry, which recommended that a central committee be set up for the implementation of stability and development. Since then, the Government has provided humanitarian access, such as food, water and education services, to displaced people around the Rakhine State. In addition, a project for citizenship verification was launched, which granted 900 displaced people citizenships. The Report was concluded by various recommendations from member States, with many of the States suggesting that Myanmar ratify other main human rights treaties that it is not a party to and to further enhance their international obligations towards the Rohingya people.

Human Rights Violations

Despite Myanmar's commitment to some international conventions, its domestic laws severely oppresses various minority groups, especially the Rohingya. The 1982 Citizenship Law represents systemic discrimination at a policy level by the Government of Myanmar, which openly denies the Rohingya access to basic human rights such as, access to education, employment, marriage, reproduction and freedom of movement.[76] Rohingya people are also subjected to routine forced labour. Typically, a Rohingya man will have to give up one day a week to work on military or government projects, and one night for sentry duty. The Rohingya have also lost a lot of arable land, which has been confiscated by the military to give to Buddhist settlers from elsewhere in Myanmar.[77][62] The movement of the Rohingya people are strictly limited to only a few surrounding areas and even so, a travel pass is required.[78] If they travel without permission or overstay the time allowed on their travel pass, they are open to being prosecuted and may even receive jail sentences. Also, they will be denied entry back into their village and be forced to live away from their family. Even during emergencies, they have to apply for a travel pass, which represent a serious violation to the right of Freedom of movement.[78]

The quality of education and health care in the Rakhine State is undeveloped and inadequate, as compared to other parts of Myanmar. Despite this, the Rohingya severely lack basic access to these services and in addition, international humanitarian agencies are not allowed to train Muslim health workers. As a result, the standard of health is severely lacking and the illiteracy rate amongst the Rohingyas is high, estimated at 80%.[79]

There are growing concerns that a genocide is occurring against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Research done by scholars in Yale Law School found empirical evidence that the Rohingya have historically suffered serious and persistent human right abuses, and these actions have increased in frequency in recent years.[80] Since 2012, living conditions and human rights abuses have worsened with reports of beheadings, stabbings, killings, beatings, mass arrests and villages and neighbourhoods being burned to the ground, however, there remains a lack of justice and accountability by the Government of Myanmar, thus representing failure of state protection.[76]

As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort.[81] Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the regime in Myanmar. Now they face problems in Bangladesh where they do not receive support from the government.[82] Lack of support from the Bangladeshi Government and also human rights abuses in Bangladeshi refugee camps have led many asylum-seekers to risk their lives and to journey further south to other South-east Asian countries. The mass exodus in 2015 has led to an international humanitarian crisis because of the deliberate refusal and alleged inability of host States in South-east Asia to accommodate the vast number of asylum-seekers.[83] Most of them are also subjected to human trafficking by organised crime groups operating in Thailand and Malaysia. These traffickers take advantage of asylum-seekers' desperation by exploiting them for money, with many of their victims being beaten, sold, or killed if they or their families do not comply with their demands.[84] The 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis highlighted the flaws of the ASEAN community in responding to humanitarian crises, as the response from those countries were inadequate and delayed.[85]

Human rights violations against the Rohingya are not only confined to Myanmar and Bangladesh. The status of the Rohingya is unrecognised in most South-east Asian countries. Although they do not receive the same persecution in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, than in Myanmar, they are subjected to exclusions and poverty. There are roughly 111,000 refugees housed in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. On February 2009, there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities also in February 2009 told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. By the end of February, there were reports that of a group of five boats were towed out to open sea, of which four boats sank in a storm, and one washed up on the shore. On 12 February 2009 Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there were "some instances" in which Rohingya people were pushed out to sea.

"There are attempts, I think, to let these people drift to other shores. [...] when these practices do occur, it is done on the understanding that there is enough food and water supplied. [...] It's not clear whose work it is [...] but if I have the evidence who exactly did this I will bring them to account." [86]

October 2015, Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit has uncovered what amounts to strong evidence of a genocide coordinated by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya people. Based on many evidences, the investigation concluded that Myanmar government agents have been involved in triggering anti-Muslim riots. An official military document shows the use of several ways, including hate speech and hiring thugs to stir hatred. The investigation stressed that in the case of the Rohingya, and Rakhine State, that could amount to the crime of genocide, several of the most powerful people in the country should reasonably be the subject of an international investigation into this situation of Rakhine State.[87]

International Response

There is a lack of co-operation between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with regards to the Rohingya crisis. In May 2015, as many as 8,000 Rohingya "boat people" were believed to be stranded in rickety boats at sea, with little food and unsanitary conditions, and were left in limbo as countries refused the boats to dock.[88] Critics have accused South-east Asian governments of playing "human ping-pong" by refusing permission for these refugee boats to land and instead, pushing them back out to sea in the direction of other countries.[89] Though at various times in the past these countries of flight have been accepting of Rohingya refugees, most of them have not signed nor ratified the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention) and the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, thus the rights of the Rohingya people as refugee cannot be ensured.[90]

Human rights violations continue to occur in Malaysia and Thailand, with little to no protection from the governments. There are no effective mechanisms in these countries for the protection of Rohingya refugees. Instead, immigration crackdowns are common and Rohingya boat people are often deported out of these countries, falling victims to slavery instead.[91] Because of the lack of proper documentation, many Rohingya people rely on smugglers and human traffickers to flee them from persecution in Myanmar. There has been reports that authorities in Thailand and Malaysia have connections and ties with organised human-trafficking groups and as a result, majority of the Rohingya are sold in bonded labour and do not receive protection as refugees.[92]

In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were helped by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.[93] Unfortunately, this response from the Indonesian authorities are not consistent, with many Rohingyas still not being accepted at the border. The governments of these countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, take an especially hardline approach on refugees arriving by boat, but a more lenient approach if they are registered through the UNHCR and arrive by appropriate means. It is estimated that Malaysia has currently up to 150,000 Rohingya people in within its territory.[94]

Rasheduzzaman, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said the reformist administration of Myanmar is said to be democratic; however, there were no signs that its strategy on the Rohingya would see an improvement soon. Indeed, even the opposition democratic pioneer Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been kept under house arrest for nearly 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, is quiet on it. It implies the humanitarian crisis on the Rohingya issue that the world sees today may have no end in sight.[95]

See also[edit]


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