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myanmarMYANMAR. At the time of the most recent published census (1983), the Muslim population of Myanmar (formerly Burma) accounted for only 3.9 percent of the country’s 34 million people. This proportion has remained stable since records began last century. The overwhelming majority are followers of Sunni Islam, but they are divided into three distinct Muslim communities, each having a very different relationship with the majority Buddhist society and the government.

The longest-established Muslim community, with its roots in the Shwebo area in the central plains near the precolonial capitals of the Burmese kings, can trace its origins back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when their ancestors came to the country as court servants, mercenaries, and traders from the west. By the 1930s these well-assimilated Burmese Muslims accounted for less than a third of the Muslim community. Nearby, in the Shan State bordering China, there were also a small number of Muslims of Chinese descent.

The most recently established section of the Muslim community arrived following the colonization of Myanmar by the British in the nineteenth century. By making British Burma a province of India until 1937, the colonial government encouraged significant numbers of immigrants and casual laborers, as well as traders and civil servants, to settle mainly in and around Yangon, the colonial capital and entrepot. These Indian Muslims, who by the 1930s accounted for more than a third of those who followed Islam, maintained strong links with the religious and cultural practices of their homelands. This often brought them into conflict with the Buddhist majority and the Burmese Muslims over matters of marriage and property law as well as the role of Islam in Myanmar’s political life.

The third Muslim community is settled in the Myanmar state of Arakan or Rahkine, which borders Bangladesh. Prior to 1784, when it was finally destroyed by a Burmese army, Arakan had been an independent Buddhist monarchy, though the rulers used Islamic designations. Its position was weakened not only by the rise of Burmese power to the east, but also by Mughal power to the west. After its absorption into British Burma, Arakan received large numbers of Bengali immigrants. The largest proportion of Muslims in Burma are of Bengali descent, and the majority of these reside in Rahkine State.

Indian immigration and the rise of nationalism generated significant tensions among the three Muslim communities in Burma, as well as between them and the Buddhist majority. While many of the Indian Muslims became involved in organizations and societies with their origins in the Indian subcontinent, the longestablished Burmese Muslim population tended to identify with the Burmese Buddhist majority and supported the Burmese nationalist movement. The Rahkine Muslims remained detached from both and have continued to develop their own history separate from the other two communities.

Following the independence of Myanmar in 1948 the roles of the three communities continued to be divided. The Burmese Muslims found places in the government of the devout Buddhist Prime Minister U Nu, and many continued to serve in the military and socialist governments of General Ne Win after the coup of 1962. The more outward-looking and commercially oriented Indian Muslims found life more difficult after independence and sought political alliances with Burmese politicians or returned to India and Pakistan. Following the wholesale nationalization of the economy by Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council government in 1963, several hundred thousand South Asians, including many Muslims, returned to the countries of their ancestors. A significant Muslim community, however, remains in Yangon (Rangoon) and other cities in southern Myanmar.

The position of the Rahkine Muslims has been the most difficult. As the poorest and the least established of the three communities, they have been buffeted by war, dislocation, and civil strife. During World War II several thousand fled into Bengal when BurmeseBengali strife developed in the area. After the war, some Muslims in the area demanded that the northern part of the region be included in Pakistan. There ensued armed conflict between the so-called Mujahid and government troops until 1961. Since that time conflict over land and access to resources has remained a problem in the area. The Mujahids, arguing that they were Rohinga (the name of the mixed Bengali, Urdu, and Burmese language that was the language of their poetry and songs of Arabic and Persian origins) became especially active again in the 1970s and 1980s. Encouraged by the economic decline of Myanmar and the rise of Pan-Islamic movements elsewhere in the world, they championed the cause of the tens of thousands of Bengalis who had settled in Rahkine during and after Bangladesh’s war with Pakistan. In 1978 the Myanmar authorities forced many of these settlers back into Bangladesh. After negotiations and the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, many were resettled in Rahkine, but similar conflicts erupted in 1989-1990, with many thousands of persons seeking refuge in camps in Bangladesh.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chakravarti, Nalini R. The Indian Minority in Burma: The Rise and Decline of an Immigrant Community. London, 1971.

Taylor, Robert H. The State in Burma. London and Honolulu, 1987. Yegar, Moshe. The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group. Wiesbaden, 1972.

R.H. TAYLOR

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/myanmar/
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  • writerPosted On: November 8, 2016
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