The Role of Muslims in Burma’s Democracy Movement

November 12, 2007

   

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Although the September protests in Rangoon were led by Buddhist monks, Burmese Muslims were among the first to offer water to the monks as a means of showing support for the peaceful demonstrations.

“I saw some Muslims kneel down and pay respect to the Buddhist monks,” said Pan Cha, a Burmese Sikh businessman who arrived at the Thai-Burmese border in early October after being involved in the September demonstrations.

Over a month since the junta cracked down violently on the monks and their supporters in the streets of Burma, Pan Cha forcefully said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that “The Burmese people are not afraid-nationwide demonstrations are coming back again soon!”

“I came here [to the border] just to escape for a while and tell the truth about what happened in Burma to the international media,” he said. “After, I will go back to Burma.”

In the context of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, it is important to remember the role of Burmese Muslims.

According to residents and journalists who were at the demonstrations, many Muslims supported and participated in the protests and were badly beaten by Burmese security forces.

In a video clip seen around the world, soldiers beat and kick a young Muslim man who is huddled on the ground. They club him with batons and kick him brutally.

Pan Cha, who helped organize security for the demonstrations, said that a top Burmese minister ordered pro-junta group, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, to beat any Muslim in sight at the demonstrations, because Muslims were never USDA members.

He went on to say that when they first saw Buddhist monks demonstrating on September 18, many Muslims wanted to support the monks, but were worried about repercussions against the Muslim community as a whole. They feared it would cause more Kala Burma Adigayone (Muslim – Buddhist riots) and create problems for all Muslims in Burma (Kala is a derogatory name for Muslims and Indians in Burmese).

Inspired by the resilience of many Muslims in Rangoon, Pan Cha began encouraging them not to fear the government, telling them that they were standing up for the rights of all the people of Burma. On September 19, many Muslims joined in the demonstrations after their prayers and supported the monks by offering water, betel nut and fresh towels.
Some wealthy Muslims supported demonstrators by providing mobile phones to make communications between the protesters easier. Some who were car owners blocked the military trucks that were carrying arrested demonstrators and tried to help them escape when the army convoys stopped. They risked their own lives on behalf of others.

According to the 88 Generation Students group, at least seven Muslims in Rangoon were charged with inciting state unrest by supporting the monk-led demonstrations. They are currently being detained in Pabedan Township in Rangoon.

Pan Cha also confirmed that before he left Burma on October 4, he knew of about 30 Muslims who had been hospitalized from being beaten during the street protests. More than 100 Muslims were still being detained, he said.

Muslims have long played a leading role in Burma’s democracy movement, even dating back to before Burmese independence.

All scholars of Burmese history know the story of Abdul Razak. Better known as U Razak, he was the Muslim headmaster of Mandalay Central National High School and became Minister of Education and National Planning in Burma’s pre-independence government. He was also a leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League in Mandalay.

He lost his life at aged 49, when he was gunned down by assassins on July 19, 1947, together with Burmese independence leader Gen Aung San and seven other cabinet members and colleagues. The day is now commemorated annually in the country as “Martyrs’ Day.”

As a minority group, Muslims in Burma regularly suffer from social and religion discrimination. The Burmese government regularly encourages ultra-nationalism and uses religion as a political tool. The Burmese government will not grant citizenship to Muslims and, to all intensive purposes, do not recognize Muslims as being Burmese.

The junta’s top leader, Snr Gen Than Shwe, is known to despise Muslims and Chinese people who live in Burma. However, most Chinese in Burma are business people and were not directly involved in the September uprising. In Mandalay, home to thousands of Chinese immigrants, most doors remained closed during the protests, a sign that the ethnic Chinese were not in support of the demonstrators. The Muslim minority, on the other hand, played an active part in the pro-democracy demonstrations, just as they have throughout the country’s troubled recent history.

“We cannot say that the demonstrations were not related to Muslims just because they were led by Buddhist monks,” Pan Cha concludes. “We were all born and live in Burma and should not discriminate among each other. We must work together toward democracy.”

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