Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2012
Issue No. 1109
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Myanmar Muslims' melancholy

Disunited in distrust, rivalries over meagre resources are pitting Muslim minorities in South and Southeast Asia against their non-Muslim compatriots. Religious confrontations are metamorphosing into catastrophes such as the massacre of Assam's and Myanmar's Muslims, laments Gamal Nkrumah

"I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can't make it through one door, I'll go through another door -- or, I'll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present is" -- India's Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore

Click to view caption
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at Myanmar's lower house of parliament on Tuesday; recent revenge killings of scores of Muslims in the northeastern Indian State of Assam resulted in the displacement of 400,000 people

The chemistry between leaders of predominantly non-Muslim Asian countries and the leading representatives of their embattled Muslim minorities never worked. Reluctantly, they have learnt to live together, and in many parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia a marriage of convenience was propagated and actually survived the tests of time.

Cautious and risk averse, India's secularist ruling party -- Congress -- has been constantly protecting its colossal back against the threat of the Hindutva (Hindu chauvinism) backlash as projected by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Recent revenge killings of scores of Muslims in the northeastern Indian State of Assam resulted in the displacement of 400,000 people.

Ethnic Bodo, an overwhelming Hindu people constituting 1.3 million, or 5.3 per cent of the total population of Assam, have been on the warpath with Assam's Muslims, pejoratively referred to as "infiltrators" from Bangladesh, by the Bodoland People's Front and other Hindutva-oriented Assamese.

The All-Assam Student Union and the government of Assam signed an accord as far back as 1985 to placate Hindutva sympathisers and launched a hate campaign against the Muslim "infiltrators" to disfranchise Muslims migrants. "We are one people and one nation and we must live together as such," pleaded a visibly despondent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "This is a blot on our nation. The ethnic conflict which occurred is unacceptable and must come to a stop," Singh entreated the Assamese.

His solicitation fell on deaf ears and failed to appease India's Muslims, especially those of Assam. "We want a full inquiry. Muslims have been systematically targeted in the violence. Assam has a secular government and yet ethnic cleansing [and] genocide [are] happening here [in Assam]", warned the All-India Majlis-e-Ittihadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader and Congress Party MP Assaduddin Owaisi.

It is time to stop contagion raging through predominantly non-Muslim Asian nations with vulnerable Muslim minorities. Opiates, such as religious zealotry, and public rectitude, cannot adequately compensate for the rise of religious strife in South and Southeast Asia.

If a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, then Myanmar's iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had just such a moment as she spoke before the Burmese parliament last week.

Her worldwide reputation as a champion of human and full-citizenship rights and as a clear-sighted and unflappable leader is being called into question. The reason is her prevarication over the question of the full citizenship rights of Myanmar's Muslims.

"To become a truly democratic union with a spirit of the Union, equal rights and mutual respect, I urge all members of parliament to discuss the enactment of the laws needed to protect equal rights of ethnicities," Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi told Burmese parliamentarians. However, when asked whether the Rohingya Muslims were Burmese citizens startlingly she said: "I do not know".

The Burmese parliamentarians did not immediately heed her words. If she does not know, who does? The country of 65 million people -- just over half of whom are ethnic Burmese -- is seething with ethnic tensions. The Shan people, related to the ethnic Thai of neighbouring Thailand, constitute nine per cent of Myanmar's population. The ethnic Karen, yet another restive linguistic group, constitute seven per cent of the Burmese population. But are Myanmar's Muslims an ethnic or a religious minority? And, when politicians talk about the rights of ethnic minorities, are they including religious minorities?

The spate of attacks against Muslim minorities raises poignant questions about religious tolerance. Why has there been a virtual radio silence from the upper echelons of the Burmese political establishment in recent weeks?

The Nobel peace prize winner's policy of quibbling over the position of Myanmar's Muslims has come under attack, from within and beyond Asia as well as from the Muslim world. "The Muslim world is stunned by the horrific news of Muslims being slaughtered in Myanmar. The country's leading politician, a supposed human rights defender, Aung San Suu Kyi, has chosen not to see evil," read an editorial in the Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates.

"She passed up opportunities to say good things about this," concurred Brad Adams, Asia's director of Human Rights Watch. "One has to be suspicious or concerned about what her views are," Adams added.

"This is an unequivocal issue, it is something where clarity is needed. She is such an icon, she could bring a lot of public opinion with her if she went after the issue," Adams lamented.

Yet the underlying political reality, both in Burma and in India, is that the Myanmar chief opposition leader is more in tune with public opinion than both her foreign critics and the Indian prime minister.

Racial and religious prejudice against Muslims is rife in Myanmar. Buddhist monks in the Rakhine district, where much of the conflict is taking place, promptly distributed pamphlets calling on the majority Buddhist population to boycott Muslim-owned shops and Muslim vendors and traders.

In retaliation, the Burmese Muslim Association urged Muslims to burn pictures of Myanmar's President Thein Sein. The Muslims of Myanmar, called Rohingya in the Rakhine district, have never been granted Burmese citizenship by successive Burmese governments. And, a law promulgated in 1992 excluded the Rohingya from the list of officially recognised minorities.

The Burmese Rohyinga are geographically restricted to the Rakhine district and they number at around 800,000. Ethnic Buddhist Rakhine are butchering their Muslim Rohingya compatriots. The numbers game in Burma, or Myanmar if you will, means that Muslims must succumb to the Buddhist majority.

As an African, however, I was outraged to learn that the pejorative term kala -- or black-skinned -- was a generic racist slur used by the Burmese to denigrate Myanmar's Muslims, most of whom hail originally from neighbouring India and Bangladesh. But the history of Muslims in Myanmar is exceedingly long, complex and convoluted.

Thanks to their traditional mistrust of their own people, the mediaeval rulers of Burma enlisted Muslims in their armies. The Muslims served as archers and artillery men. So as soldiers of fortune and sailors of Burma's navies, the locals did not particularly like them, and that is an understatement. Something of that mediaeval ill-feeling was there when the Buddhist Burmese massacred the Muslims of Myanmar.

Bengalis, of course, are far darker in complexion than the ethnic Burmese who moved into what is Myanmar in antiquity from southern China. Most of the contemporary Muslims of Myanmar are ethnically akin to the Bengalis. So, there was a racist element in the massacre of the Muslims, as well as a religious factor to reckon with. The vast majority of the people of Burma are Buddhist, adherents of Theravada Buddhism, to be precise. Muslims, however, constitute the largest religious minority in the country that also has a sprinkling of Christians and Hindus.

Race or religion, whichever it is, something is very wrong with the militaristic mould of Myanmar politics. That something is a combination of decades of faltering growth and the newfound relative prosperity of a potentially very wealthy country.

Burmese President Thein Sein condemned the massacre of Muslims in Myanmar, but what he failed to mention is that this is not the first time that the Muslims of Myanmar had been targeted for retribution.

On 16 March 1997 barbaric anti-Muslim rioting erupted in the mediaeval capital of Myanmar, Mandalay. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) strongly objected to the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in Myanmar, which rendered hundreds of thousands homeless and as displaced people in Burma and refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh -- the number has been escalating sharply on a daily basis since. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Burma belongs, includes several predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, as well as Malaysia and Brunei. There are Muslim minorities in virtually all Southeast Asian countries. ASEAN member states such as Thailand and the Philippines have sizeable Muslim minorities.

Outside Myanmar, the consensus has developed on what the Burmese must do to preserve peace and security in the country. Myanmar is strategically located between South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Muslims of Myanmar must be protected from the bigotry of their Buddhist brethren.

Rakhine, incidentally, literally means "those who maintain their own race". The Rakhine Chroniclers maintain that the Buddha himself visited their country, the ancient Dhayawadi (Land Blessed with Grain). The celebrated visit was narrated in the ancient Arakanese language.

In the past, Burmese kings confined their Muslim merchants and soldiers in special quarters, presumably to protect them from the Buddhist Burmese.

Long viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists and agent provocateurs, the Muslims of Myanmar must be granted full citizenship rights. They cannot live in ghettos like in the past. The part of Myanmar where the massacre of Muslims took place this week is so to speak a sacred land. Archaeological evidence unearthed traces of a highly sophisticated civilisation that dates to 3325 BC. It is a shame that religious intolerance today reduces this remote region to rubble.

Muslims and Buddhists must learn to live in peace together in Myanmar and Southeast and South Asia. The human cost will be immense if religious strife is not contained.

Al-Qaeda is active in Southeast Asia. ASEAN leaders have cautioned that the predicament of Myanmar's Muslims must be attended to. Nobody wants to test the doomsday disaster scenarios that will only engender terrorism, religious extremism and suffering for the people of Southeast Asia.

Pragmatism fuelled Southeast Asia's drive to prosperity. Economically, the region is doing rather well. Politically, too, the region appears to be somewhat stable. The firebrand ideologies of Islamist extremism are in retreat. However, massacres such as the one in Myanmar might inflame the fanatics. Huge challenges remain simmering just below the surface.

However, the Rohingya are not welcome in Bangladesh, ironically an overwhelmingly Muslim country closest geographically to the Rakhine district. On the Pan-Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikha Hassina was questioned about her government's refusal to receive any more Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. There are more than 300,000 Myanmar Rohingya living in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh is overpopulated, we cannot bear such a burden. I have no right to poke my nose into the internal affairs of any country," Sheikha Hassina told Al-Jazeera. Her pronouncements are likely to produce more diplomatic pomp than real political progress in resolving the Rohingya peoples' pitiful plight.

The immeasurable possibilities for fruitful cooperation between the three neighbouring countries -- India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are obvious enough. The draw may be bigger for the poverty-stricken Bangladeshis, which makes the Muslim nation particularly vulnerable to any aggressive turn by either of its predominantly non-Muslim neighbours.

While in India and resource-rich Myanmar is where the real economic growth is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, if Bangladesh can accomplish an impossible feat and saddle itself to both the Indian and the Burmese horses, or shall I say, elephants, it will prosper. And, the eastern elephant, Rohingya or no Rohingya, has as much going for it as the western one. For all of Buddhist Myanmar's and overwhelmingly Hindu and secularist India's economic ascendance, Muslim Bangladesh, too, could benefit from being sandwiched between its non-Muslim neighbours.

So far, therefore, Bangladesh cannot rush to the defence of its co-religionists in either India or Myanmar. The greatest communality between the three countries is their knowledge that objective economic interests dictate cooperation. The religious factor has ultimately lost out to mutual economic interests between Bangladesh and the respective governments of India and Myanmar. So as the great Bengali sage mused: "Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present is."

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