Persecution of Muslims in Myanmar

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Myanmar has a Buddhist majority. The Muslim minority in Myanmar mostly consists of the Rohingya people and 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. Indian Muslims migrated to Burma during British rule to fill jobs in the expanding economy, especially in clerical work and business. After independence, many Muslims retained their previous positions and achieved prominence in business and politics.[citation needed] 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.[1]


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.[2] 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.[3] It was clearly recorded in the Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma that they were no longer trusted.[4] Rahman Khan (Nga Yaman Kan) was another Muslim killed for political reasons, because of treason to his own king and also clearly as religious persecution.[citation needed] During a time of war, King Kyansittha sent a hunter as a sniper to assassinate him.[5][6]

Pre-modern persecution[edit]

The Burmese king Bayintnaung (1550–1589 AD) imposed restrictions upon his Muslim subjects.[7] In 1559 AD, after conquering Bago (Pegu), Bayintnaung 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.[8]

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.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15]

King Alaungpaya (1752–1760) prohibited Muslims from practicing the Islamic method of killing cattle.[16]

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.[17] According to the Myedu Muslim and Burma Muslim version, Bodawpaya later apologized for the killings and recognized the Imams as saints.[17][18]

British rule[edit]

As of 1921, the population of Muslims in Burma was around 500,000.[19] 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.:[20]

After World War I, there was an upsurge in anti-Indian sentiments.[21] 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.[20][22]

In 1930, anti-Indian riots were sparked by a labor 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.[20]

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.[23][24]

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.[25] 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.[26] Muslim properties, including shops and houses were looted. Muslims were assaulted and even killed. 113 mosques were damaged.[27]

On September 22, 1938, the British Governor set up the Inquiry Committee to investigate the riots.[28] It was determined that the discontent was caused by the deterioration in sociopolitical and economic condition of Burmese.[29] The Simon Commission (The Royal Statutory Commission, appointed according to the Law of the Government of India in 1919, The Montague-Chelmsford Law) recommended Muslims be assigned special places in the Legislative Council. It recommended that full rights of citizenship should be guaranteed to all minorities: the right of free worship, the right to follow their own customs, the right to own property and to receive a share of the public revenues for the maintenance of their own educational and charitable institutions. It also recommended Home Rule or independent government separate from India or the status of dominion. But the British Government did not accept any of these recommendations except for separation, at the round table committee on India held in London in 1930.[citation needed] This report itself was used to incite sectarianism by Burmese newspapers.[30]


During World War II, the Japanese committed countless acts of rape, murder and torture against thousands of Rohingyas.[31] During this period, some 22,000 Rohingyas are believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence.[32][33] Defeated, 40,000 Rohingyas eventually fled to Chittagong after repeated massacres by the Burmese and Japanese forces.[34]

Muslims under U Nu[edit]

AFPFL expelled the Burma Muslim Congress[35]

[The BMC, Burma Muslim Congress was founded almost at the same time with the AFPFL,] The Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom Party of General Aung San and U Nu was formed as a resistance movement against the Japanese in World War II. On December 25, 1945 in Pyinmana, U Razak was elected President of BMC and decided to join AFPFL. U Razak was elected AFPFL President in the Mandalay district in 1946. Later the Governor accepted him as the member of constitutional council. He had good relations with Buddhists and was fluent in Pali (Buddhist scriptures are written in this ancient language of India). He became the Minister of Education and Planning in Bogoke’s (General Aung San) Government and was later assassinated with him.[36] But he had supported the main policy of the AFPFL: that is against the partition along community or religious lines. U Razak and his few associates objected to the struggle of those demanding specific constitutional guarantees for the Burma Muslim minority. So, although U Razak was a prominent Burma Muslim leader who had successfully organized Burma Muslims to be able to get an official record that they had participated since the very beginning of the Burmese National struggle towards independence.

His stand of united Burmese (Burma) nation sacrificing the long-term interest of guarantee for the rights of Minority Burma Muslim satisfied not only the Burmese Buddhist leaders of the AFPFL, but also the British Government. Maybe because of that he got a lot of personal rewards. U Raschid and more prominently U Khin Maung Lat, follows the general policy of sacrificing the Rights and Interests of the Burma Muslim Community for ‘the country and their party’. Prime Minister U Nu, just a few months after the independence of Burma, requested the Burma Muslim Congress to resign its membership from AFPFL. In response to that U Khin Maung Lat, the new President of BMC, decided to discontinue the Islamic religious activities of the BMC and rejoined the AFPFL. Later he became Minister of Justice but no longer represented the wishes of the Burma Muslim community. The newly formed Burmese Muslim League requested a special government department for Muslim affairs to determine their own future, the same as for other minorities, who had Ministries in Yangon and governments in their states. U Nu removed the Burma Muslim Congress from AFPFL on September 30, 1956. BMC was asked to dissolve since 1955.

Later U Nu decreed Buddhism as the state religion of Burma against the will of the ethnic minorities and various religious organizations including Burma Muslims. U Nu, a Buddhist, was pressured by the wealthy and influential Hindi merchants who ordered the prohibition of the slaughtering of cattle. Although he relaxed that during the Kurbani Eid (Eid al-Adha), Muslims had to apply the permits for each cattle and strictly follow procedures under police supervision. Although General Ne Win revoked the first order and allowed the slaughter of cattle for daily consumption, the second order of restriction for the sacrifice remained up to the present. Some Muslims complained that U Nu’s government had made more difficult conditions and regulations for the Haj pilgrimage than the Buddhists pilgrims going to Sri Lanka and Nepal.[citation needed]

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.[37] Burma has a Buddhist majority. The more pious Muslim communities who segregate themselves from the Buddhist majority face greater difficulties than those who integrate more at the cost of observance to Islamic personal laws.[37]

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.[38] Mobs of Buddhists, led by monks, vandalized Muslim-owned businesses and property and attacked and killed Muslims in Muslim communities. This was followed by retaliation by Muslims against Buddhists.

Religious freedom for Muslims is reduced. Monitoring and control of Islam undermines the free exchange of thoughts and ideas associated with religious activities.[39] Accusations of "terrorism" are made against Muslim organizations such as the All Burma Muslim Union.[40]

It is widely feared that persecution of Muslims in Burma could foment Islamic extremism in the country.[37] Many Muslims have joined armed resistance groups who are fighting for greater freedoms in Burma.[41]

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.[42]

On 16 March 1997 beginning at about 3:30 p.m., a mob of 1,000-1,500 Buddhist monks and others shouted anti-Muslim slogans.[citation needed] They targeted the mosques first for attack, followed by Muslim shop-houses and transportation vehicles in the vicinity of mosques, damaging, destroying, looting, and trampling, burning religious books, committing acts of sacrilege. The area where the acts of damage, destruction, and lootings were committed was Kaingdan, Mandalay.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] On May 15, 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 May 15, 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 May 17, 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 July 12, 2001.[46] Buddhist monks demanded that the ancient Hantha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in retaliation for the destruction in Bamiyan.[47] On May 18, however, Han Tha mosque and Taungoo Railway station mosque were razed to the ground by bulldozers owned by the SPDC junta.[47] 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.[47]

2012 Rakhine State violence/riots[edit]

Since June 2012, at least 166 Muslims and Rakhine have been killed in sectarian violence in the state.[48][49][50]

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".[51] In an open letter, U Wirathu claims he treated both Beech 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.[52]

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."[53]

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.[54] Two men — one Buddhist and one Muslim — were killed. A curfew was imposed on 3 July.[55][56]

Human rights violations against Rohingya[edit]

Rohingya people in Rakhine State

According to Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya 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]

They have been denied Burmese citizenship since the Burmese nationality law was enacted.[58] 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. They are 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 Burma.[59][58]

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.[60]

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.[61] In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were helped by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.[62]

Over the years thousands of Rohingya also have fled to Thailand. 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. In 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. February 12, 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." [63]

Rasheduzzaman, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said the reformist administration of Myanmar was said to be democratic, however there were no signs that its strategy on the Rohingya would see an adjustment soon. Indeed, even the opposition democratic pioneer Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been kept under house arrest for very nearly 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, is quiet on it. It implies the humanitarian crisis that the world sees today on the Rohingya issue may proceed with, he said.[64]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce, The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, Rangoon University Press, Rangoon, Burma, January 1960
  3. ^ Yegar, Moshe The Muslims of Burma: a Study of a Minority Group, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972; p. 2, paragraph 3
  4. ^ Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce, The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma p. 83 paragraph 3, lines 2&3
  5. ^ Yegar Muslims; p. 2, lines 1&2
  6. ^ Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce, The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, p. 103, paragraph 3
  7. ^ Yegar Muslims; p. 10, lines 11&12
  8. ^ Yegar Muslims; p. 10, lines 10-16
  9. ^ Yegar Muslims; p. 21, paragraph 2; pp. 22-24.
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  35. ^ Yegar Muslims; pp. 75-79
  36. ^ Yegar Muslims; p. 75 footnote last paragraph
  37. ^ a b c [1]
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  40. ^
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  42. ^ Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Chapter 5 Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Monograph Series No. 33. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1999, 400 pp. ISBN 4-87297-748-3
  43. ^ Images Asia: Report on the Situation for Muslims in Burma May 1997
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  • Islamic Unity Brotherhood [11]
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  • The Persecution of Muslims in Burma, by Karen Human Rights Group