Burma is characterized by a multiethnic and multi-religious population that has volatile relations. The government backs the majority – Bamar - to orchestrate evils towards the minority groups, and when the latter arise to defend themselves, the military comes in to crush the uprising. The trend has led to many years of violence aimed at minority groups, and this contravenes the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and has drawn the reaction of the international community. The military has been on the spot for executing violent attacks on innocent civilians and did not even spare the fleeing refugees. The government, therefore, rules in a partisan manner as it instigates and arms the Bamar to attack the minority groups as well as encourages the former to grab the property of the latter. The current essay seeks to examine the identity politics of the Burmese Muslims with a focus on political, historical, social, and cultural implications of membership into the Burmese Muslims, their aims, and aspirations, their way of advancing their interests as well as measuring their success.
Keywords: Muslims, Burma, Identity, and Politics
Muslims in Burma
According to the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (2014), Muslims in Burma amounts to about 2 million, and this is 4% of the total population, and the origin of the group comes from the immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh, and India among other countries in the ancient times. The community landed in the Arakan state of Burma in the 8th Century before the establishment of the first Burmese Empire (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). By the 15th Century, the Muslims already had an established kingdom in Arakan, and it soon started spreading to other areas in Burma (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). However, Muslims, being a minority in the country has continued to face the wrath of their majority counterpart (the Bamar) who continues to oppress them with the support of the government as well as the help of the state machinery. The tendency has compelled the Muslims to defend their rights since they greatly disagree with the majorities’ view. The group, therefore, must struggle for their existence as it appears as an unwanted lot. The following research seeks to examine the identity politics of the Burmese Muslims, their aims, and aspirations, the means they use to further their interests as well as their success or failure.
The Implications of being a Muslim in Burma, Aspirations, and Achievements
Members of Muslims in Burma have appeared for long to have been involved in the fight for their independence from the Burmese government (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). They argue that they are the indigenous people of Arakan and thus they must be recognized as citizens. However, the Buddhists in the region dispute this claim and continue to oppose the idea. The development leads to bad blood between the Muslims and the Majority Buddhists who are backed by the government. Considering the aforementioned, Muslims appear not to have experienced political acceptance in Burma, and thus they look like outcasts.
The Muslims in Burma claim that their ancestors had a kingdom in Arakan that dates 146 AD (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). However, the majority of Bamar does not acknowledge the claim, so there exists friction between the two groups as each of them do not agree on the issue. The matter, therefore, makes the Muslims appear as a tribe that struggles to maintain its roots and thus the group seems to be struggling to preserve their historical legacy that is endangered by their enemies.
For an extended period, the Burmese Muslims have been fighting to achieve their social identity as well as the inclusion by the State Peace and Development Council in the list of the Burmese Citizens or indigenous tribes (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The lack of social acceptance is dehumanizing, as it makes people lack a sense of belonging and thus the Muslims must struggle to improve their social status in Burma. The issue, therefore, depicts the Muslims as people who are rejected in their home and thus they appear like misfits.
The Burmese Muslims have long fought to preserve the culture that has been endangered by the activities of the government in the bid to try and force them to assimilate into the Buddhist culture (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). Muslims, therefore, are under the threat of having their culture eroded through forceful displacement as well as assimilation. The group’s culture is hence under the threat of becoming extinct.
The Aims of Burmese Muslims
Acquiring Citizenship and Recognition as Natives
The Muslims have always had the aim of having themselves recognized not only as citizens but also as the natives of the Arakan (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The reason for such an aspiration is that they wanted to enjoy equal rights as their Bamar counterparts. The group used advocacy and pressured the government to recognize them, and there was a short-lived success as in 1960, the Prime Minister U Nu authorized the Burma Broadcasting Service to broadcast in Rohingya language, which boosted the claim of Rohingyas that they are indigenous people (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The above developments appear as a success to the Muslims even if there is controversy regarding the issue.
However, the Group has not been successful in its bid to acquire citizenship. For instance, after the exit of British colonialists, the Thakin political party launched a major attack on the Muslims in 1942 (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012). When Muslims organized themselves for defense purposes, the army launched Operation Monsoon in 1954 to crush the Muslim warriors instead of crushing the fighters from both sides (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012). In 1959, the Burmese Prime Minister made a false promise to the Muslims that he would give them equal citizenship and rights and asked them to surrender their arms. In 1978, the government launched King Dragon Operation to weed out the Muslims through all manners of crime and war and the forces never spared even the fleeing victims. In 1982, the government enacted legislation that declared the Rohingya Muslim non-Burmese citizens (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012) and up to date the law remains. The above report indicates that the Muslims did not achieve the dream of having an independent status.
Aims of Protecting their Heritage
Burmese Muslims try to fight for the restoration of their historical legacy. The Arakan state was initially an independent kingdom that traces its existence to 146 AD and had diplomatic ties with India (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). Burma, however, invaded and conquered the kingdom in 1404, making it its territory (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The Muslims coined the term Rohingya to imply that they are the original natives of the Arakan state and thus demanding the independence of Arakan from Burma (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The group seeks to unite itself through the Rohingya tag as a way of advocating for their independence.
The team has not been successful as the government considers them as aliens. In 1937, the Thakin political party spread propaganda that Muslims were a threat to Buddhism and the Buddhists needed to wipe out the Muslims to safeguard their religion (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). In 1942, a battle against the Muslims began, forcing them out of India and Bangladesh ran and leaving the Rohingya Muslims under the jaws of death (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). After the independence, the league that had led the fight for liberation deprived the Muslims of their jobs and intensified the attacks on the group. In 1947, there was another major attack on Muslims, and it made them arm themselves in defense, but they faced a brutal force from the army that saw thousands killed or deported (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). When the military overthrew the government in 1962, the atrocities against the Muslims intensified as the military regime became even worse to them (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). To exacerbate the situation, in 1978, General Ne Win the coup leader initiated the ‘Operation Naga Min’ to flush out illegal residents of the Arakan State. The military indiscriminately attacked people, and this operation sent between 250,000 and 300,000 out of Arakan as refugees heading to Bangladesh and the numbers included the citizens and aliens, and the same evil happened in 1991 (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The above developments, therefore, portrays that the Muslims failed in their bid to restore their cultural heritage as they became refugees and aliens in their ancestral land.
The Aim of Fighting for Social Identity
The Burmese Muslims have fought for their social identity in Burma for long years, which entails the recognition as an indigenous tribe of the Arakan land. The idea behind such efforts is to have them respected as nationals of the area as opposed to the resident status. The group used political parties with the view of advocating for their rights of having a native state (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The adoption of the Rohingya name is also a way of unifying Muslims by making them have a collective identity. The Rohingya title implies Muslims from Bengal who settled in Arakan before the independence of Burma and this is meant to press for a citizenship status (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The lack of a legal residency in one's land is humiliating and lowers the dignity of the affected persons as they appear as slaves in their soil, and thus the Burmese Muslims must fight for their identity.
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However, on a sad note, the group has not been successful in this struggle for social identity as the State Peace and Development Council does not include them in the list of the Burmese Citizens or indigenous tribes (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). Also, the military government made a law in 1982 to deprive the Muslims their citizenship denies them their social identity as Burmese citizens (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). Additionally, the Muslims are subject to travel bans, and thus they have no freedom of movement. For instance, the Muslim in Arakan cannot go to Akyab and the Burmese Capital Rangoon is out of bounds for the Muslims under whatever circumstances (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). The Muslims must possess travel permits and cards, but these do not guarantee them the freedom of movement. Couples intending to marry high pay taxes before they can get the permit and thus most of them must sneak to Bangladesh to marry from there (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). Regarding the information above, it has been hard for the Burmese Muslims to achieve their dreams of having a dignified social identity in Burma.
The Aim of Protecting the Culture
The Muslims in Burma fight for the retention of the Islamic culture in the Arakan State. They use a number of ways to maintain their cultural heritage, and these include the preservation of the Arabic script, coins, and artifacts among others (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Assistance, 2012). Moreover, the group has medallions portraying Kalima that is a Muslim confession of faith (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The Arabian Monks also advocated for the acknowledgment of Arakan as a legendary autonomous state and cultural entity. The Muslims also uphold their Arakanese/Rohingya Language as a symbol of the Islamic culture, and in 1960 they advocated for the inclusion of their language in the National Language Program (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The move was successful as the then Prime Minister authorized the radio station to accommodate the Rohingya language (Euro-Burma Office, 2009). The aspirations that drove the group to protect their culture is to have their rich heritage in place.
However, Muslims are not successful in protecting cultural heritage. For instance, the Burmese government considers the Islamic language, coins, Arabic script and artifacts as exotic (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012). Furthermore, the administration coerces the Muslims to change their names and even goes ahead to destroy the legendary artifacts as well as amending the names of places. For instance, Arakan has been modified to Rakhine, and Akyab changed to Sittwe (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012). The government also practices burning down the Muslim mosques and schools and replace them with Buddhist temples in every corner of the areas significantly inhabited by the Muslims. It also forces the Muslims to change their names and modify their homes to resemble the Buddhist homesteads (F. H. R. & F. & H. A., 2012). The above evils significantly undermine the Islamic culture in Burma hence eroding the cultural identity of the Muslims.
The Muslims in Burma are a minority group that faces oppression from the dominant Bamar group. The former thus must defend itself. Therefore, their dignity and rights are inherent by Burmese citizenship that they have been deprived of. The political implication is that the Muslims advocate for their recognition as citizens. However, they have not been successful, as the government sees them as aliens and even goes ahead to wipe them out using the military. The historical implication is that the Muslims try to protect their heritage and it is their kingdom that existed from 146 AD but the efforts are futile because the government terms them as foreigners. The social implication is that the community tries to protect its identity as an indigenous tribe but the State Peace and Development Council does not recognize them as citizens. The cultural outcome of membership is that the group tries to protect its culture in aspects such as artifacts, language, and script among others. However, the government frustrates their effort by destroying their heritage and even forcing them to change their culture. The Muslims in Burma, therefore, face oppression by the majority tribe Bamar as well as the government and thus they must have a differing political identity so that they can address their plight. At the same time though, the government has always frustrated their dreams.