Burmese Muslim Family in Karen State
This report takes a look at the general persecution of Muslims in Burma through the eyes of Muslim villagers and townspeople. Emphasis is placed on the sizeable but mostly ignored Muslim population outside of Rakhine (Arakan) State. Muslims have lived in Burma for hundreds of years, although many arrived only after Burma’s annexation by Great Britain in the 19th Century. Racial and religious tensions have run high between Muslims and Burmans since independence in 1948. Successive Burmese regimes have encouraged or instigated violence against Muslims as a way of diverting the public’s attention away from economic or political concerns. The most recent outbreak of violence occurred in cities across
The report also examines Karen relations with the Muslim population in Karen State, particularly the persecution of Muslims by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen group allied with the SPDC. The DKBA has been involved in the destruction of mosques and the forced relocation of Muslim villagers. DKBA soldiers have tried to force Muslims to worship Buddhist monks and put up Buddhist altars. Restrictions have also been placed on Muslims to force them to become vegetarian. Both the DKBA and the SPDC force Muslims in Karen State to perform forced labour for them on a regular basis.s Burma from February to October 2001.
This report is based on interviews with Muslim refugees from Karen State and Muslim travellers and traders from central Burma and the Western border conducted by KHRG researchers between October 2001 and February 2002.
All of the interviews quoted in the text are with Burmese Muslims with the exception of Interview #6 with “Moe Zaw Shwe”, who is a Karen Christian. There are a higher number of examples in the text from Karen State because more of the interviews were conducted with Muslims from Karen State. Some supporting information and assistance with interviews was provided by the Muslim Information Centre of Burma (MICB).
This report consists of several parts: this preface, an introduction, a detailed description of the situation including quotes from interviews, and an index of interviews. The full text of the interviews compiled for this report is available as a separately published annex and is available from KHRG upon approved request
“Far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims.” – John Pilger
Almost every city or town in Burma has a Muslim community. There are also Muslim and mixed Muslim villages throughout Burma. Rakhine State (also known as Arakan State) in western Burma has the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants. The families of some of the Muslim inhabitants of Rakhine State have lived there for hundreds of years, while others arrived after the annexation of this part of Burma by the British in 1824.
Most of the Muslim families in the rest of Burma arrived during British colonial rule. Most of the Muslims in Burma descend at least partly from South Asians, though through the generations there has been a great deal of intermarriage so that many of today’s Muslims have ancestors of various ethnicity. Despite this, in Burma non-Muslims tend to use the term ‘Muslim’ to indicate not only a religion but also an ethnicity, or else they refer to all Muslims as ‘Indians’ [‘Ka La’], which of course they are not.
Muslims usually refer to themselves as ‘Muslims’ when asked about their ethnicity. The vast majority of Muslims in Burma today were born there, and their ancestors have lived in Burma for generations.
Racial and religious tensions surrounding the Muslims have existed for a long time, but have become worse since Burmese independence in 1948. Much of the abuse against Muslims is similar to that encountered by other ethnic groups.
Muslims also have to go for forced labour and pay extortion fees, they are subject to arbitrary arrest and torture, and are even sometimes executed. Where the discrimination against Muslims differs is in the areas of citizenship and religious freedom.
Most Muslims are not considered as citizens under Burma’s strict citizenship law. Based on this they are unable to obtain national identity cards. As a result they find it difficult to travel, get an education, carry on social relations and conduct business.
Racial discrimination and the lack of an identity card make it difficult for Muslims to get employment with private companies. Muslims who are able to get identity cards are barred from holding high office in both the civil service and the military. The majority of them (particularly outside Rakhine State) do not own land, but work as traders or day labourers.
The sad truth is that millions of people of all ethnicities in Burma harbour racist anti-Muslim feelings, considering them vaguely and baselessly as foreigners, immigrants, job- or land-stealers, poor, uneducated, and so the usual list goes on.
The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and its predecessor regimes have often exploited this in order to ‘divide and rule’ the civilian population. In the late 1970s and again in 1991-92, the Burmese military dictatorship launched pogroms against the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State in the hope that Buddhist Rakhines, many of whom are rabidly anti-Muslim, would swing over to the ‘government’ side – forgetting their growing anger at Burmese Army repression and redirecting it against the Muslim community. The regime could then step in with more repressive measures against both communities, while simultaneously claiming credit as a ‘peacemaker’ and using the communal violence to justify continued military rule. To their credit, most of the Buddhist Rakhine population refused to join in, leaving the ‘government’ clearly to blame.
In 1991-92 alone, the pogrom displaced over 250,000 Muslims into Bangladesh. Almost all of them have now been forcibly repatriated to Burma by the Bangladeshi government in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but those who return still face persecution both from the SPDC and the Rakhine Buddhists so a small but steady exodus is continuing. UNHCR and the Bangladeshi authorities refuse to recognise any of these new or repeat refugees, so tens of thousands of them have disappeared into the illegal labour markets of Bangladesh and India in the past five years.
Like education, religion is viewed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime in black and white: it is either a potential weapon (if it can be controlled) or a threat (if it cannot). Military control of the curriculum, the rewriting of history and the banning of non-Burman language and culture have made education into a weapon of the regime, while the closure of universities, the burning of independent village schools and the arrests of teachers have weakened the potential for education to pose a threat. In religion, the SPDC has attempted to turn Buddhism into a weapon by infiltrating the Buddhist Sangha (monks’ organisation) with Military Intelligence operatives, and by engaging in massively expensive pagoda-building and offerings ceremonies to try to make the population believe that the enormous merit acquired by the Generals makes them invulnerable. Contrastingly, Islam is treated as a ‘threat’ involving ‘foreigners’, and communities are subtly encouraged to turn against their Muslim neighbours. The SPDC has increasingly limited the religious freedoms of Muslims over the past few years. Permission must be sought to hold religious ceremonies and celebrate special occasions. The construction of new mosques is banned and the upkeep of old ones is limited to the interiors only. The activities of religious groups and religious leaders are also closely monitored, and Islamic schools are no longer allowed.
From February to October 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in cities and towns across Burma. Mosques, homes and shops were destroyed and many Muslims were killed or injured. Although the SPDC claimed Buddhist monks instigated the riots, many saw the hand of the junta behind the violence; in the past, Burma’s military regimes have occasionally instigated anti-Chinese or anti-Muslim riots as a way of deflecting discontentment and turning the civilian population against itself. The riots ended in each town after a few days, but the mosques have remained closed in most of the towns. Muslims have also been prohibited from rebuilding the mosques or their homes and shops.
The events of September 11th 2001 in the United States have not had much of an impact in Burma. The regime suppressed news of the attacks and even declared videotapes of them illegal. As in other countries, the attacks have been used as an excuse to further tighten travel restrictions on Muslims, and religious leaders and groups have been put under increased surveillance. The communal violence, however, seems to have ended. Some Muslims ascribe this to a fear on the part of the regime that continued violence might prompt a retaliatory ‘terrorist’ attack in Burma.
Muslims in most of Karen State escaped the communal violence of 2001, but they have long suffered oppression from the soldiers of the Burmese Army. When forces of the Burmese regime captured central Dooplaya District from the Karen National Union in 1997, Muslims were driven en masse out of their villages, copies of the Quran were torn up in front of them and their mosques were dynamited and bulldozed, partly due to the individual religious hatred of some of the Burmese commanders and partly in a misguided attempt to gain support for the occupation from the Buddhist and Christian Karen villagers.
The creation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) in 1994-95 added more problems for Muslim villagers in several regions. Although relations with most Karen villagers and the Karen National Union (KNU) have been peaceable, many Karens have always been prejudiced against Muslims. The DKBA has given some Karens the power to vent those feelings against the Muslim communities. Muslims have been targeted for village relocations and mosques have been destroyed by DKBA soldiers. Camps and pagodas have then been built on the sites of the mosques. Villagers also experience heavy demands for forced labour from both the DKBA and the SPDC. When gathering people for forced labour, SPDC and DKBA commanders tend to target Muslim communities first when possible, knowing that the other parts of the community will not protest. Conditions while performing forced labour are similar to those experienced by other ethnic groups, but the treatment can sometimes be harsher for Muslims due to racist feelings held by some SPDC or DKBA soldiers.
Muslim villagers are finding it increasingly difficult to live in their villages as their food and money run out and they cannot find enough time to work to get more. A steady trickle of Muslims are fleeing their villages, some to the refugee camps in Thailand and others to cities and towns in other parts of Burma.
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