Talking Burma

Published: July 30, 2012

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.

The problem of the Burmese Muslim that people in Pakistan seem to have woken up to is a historic issue, pertaining mainly to the Rohingya Muslims from the Arakan state in Myanmar, an area that borders the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. This is one of the four Muslim groups in the country. The other three — two groups of Burmese Muslims and Chinese Panthay — are better integrated with the Buddhist majority. The Rohingyas, which are the largest and the most persecuted of the approximately two million Muslims (five to six per cent of total population), are also the most troubled. Some of the Rohingyas claim their ancestry to the Arab merchants that came and stayed on during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. But the majority of the people were actually migrants from East Bengal after the British colonial takeover in 1886 that continued until 1948, when Burma became independent. There are three dimensions of the current ethnic problem in Myanmar: its historic nature, internal politics, and the peculiar internationalisation of the issue.

Although the Burmese state recognised Islam and Christianity as two religious cultures existing in the country, the nature of the state and society began to change due to communist influence and militarisation of the state after 1958. This is also the time when in 1961, Buddhism was declared the state religion, followed in 1962 by the establishment of the socialist party as the single party in the country. Clearly, the military-controlled state wanted greater unification, an idea that was constantly challenged by the presence of minority groups and assertiveness of the Rohingyas, who wanted to create a separate state with Muslim Rohingyas from what is now Bangladesh. Consequently, Rohingyas were persecuted by the military. In January 1950, about 30,000 refugees fled from Burma to the then East Pakistan. Rangoon has mostly viewed these people as outsiders. The 1953 population census report declared 45 per cent of the Rohingya population Pakistani in origin. Their links with the Bangladeshi Muslims allows them greater flexibility of moving between the two territories, but which also means greater suspicion by the state. In 1978, an agreement was signed between Dhaka and Rangoon, according to which, any Rohingya who could produce any documentary evidence of being Burmese could return. However, this did not solve the problem or stop the state-sponsored massacre in 1991.

The problem is not likely to be resolved due to the political influence of the Buddhist Monks. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is not likely to flag the minority issue due to her concern for losing support of the Monks, who were the largest force to stand up against the military. The Rohingya separatist tendencies make the Monks insecure about sovereignty of the Buddhist state. Things did not become easy when in 1978, the Palestinian militant leader Abdullah Azzam, who later became a member of al Qaeda, declared Burma one of the countries to be liberated from foreign rule.

However, it is also a fact that Muslim militant groups have not really had a huge influence on the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, which is primarily due to the fact that no other Muslim country, including next-door Bangladesh would intervene, and also because the majority belong to the Sufi school of thought. There is no real evidence that the majority of the Rohingyas are inclined towards external forces or violence despite pouring in of Saudi money and intellectual investment by groups such as the Harkatul Ansar, the Harkatul Mujahideen and the Harkatul Jihadul Islami, who have developed links with minor militant groups in Burma and are even trying to link up Burmese groups with others in Assam. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that the Jamatud Dawa in Pakistan has started highlighting conditions of Muslims in both Myanmar and Assam on social media. The South Asian militant cadres also find Myanmar exciting because of the investments made in developing human resources. Reportedly, 350,000 Rohingyas were trained in the past couple of decades in madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The issue right now is what option will Rangoon consider in engaging with this population. Treating it through the lens of international terrorism is a dangerous possibility. The Burmese authorities seem to be tempted by this option considering the fact that they are trying to adopt the US as a new patron and the war against terror could attract resources. Although Myanmar has been a target of terrorism, it has mainly been carried out by Buddhist groups rather than by Muslims. This issue is like many other problems in the larger South Asian region where states have gone astray with a singular national vision in a multi-polar environment.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • Dogar
    Jul 31, 2012 - 12:04AM

    Good Article.
    Another battle front in the making? fake Jihadis and the U.S? So we see how peaceful Buddhists actually are. Can we call them terrorists now?

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  • usman
    Jul 31, 2012 - 12:44AM

    “This issue is like many other problems in the larger South Asian region where states have gone astray with a singular national vision in a multi-polar environment.”

    explains it cogently

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  • Nagpuri
    Jul 31, 2012 - 12:51AM

    All this explanation is well and good.

    Pakistan need to setup up to its historical mistakes and be true citadel of Islam and accept these Muslims in Pakistan.

    They should send all army and PIA aircrafts to lift them to Pakistan. I can’t think of better place than some where close to Karachi for good measure.

    I’m sure lot of Indians and other around the world would be happy to give “aid” for this.

    For once, Pakistan will provide solution rather than problems for whole word.

    What say you?

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  • Waseem janjua
    Jul 31, 2012 - 1:58AM

    Strange you never highlighted what really sparked the recent Rohingyas – Rakhinis conflict or whose claim is true or false? Putting the blame square on Rohingyas won’t help the situation. They have been living there forever and 65 years is almost 3 gnerations. How do we expect to square the blame on one side and move forward? Even UNO and Su Kyi denounced the Burmese government action calling it as the persecution of Muslims. You seem to have a different angle altogether. Where did you get your data of Rohingyas being trained at Pakistani/Afghani Madrassas? Don’t you think you need to be more balanced before inviting for more trouble for the word “PAKISTAN” itself?

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  • Arifq
    Jul 31, 2012 - 2:01AM

    If TTP applies for Burmese visas we should facilitate the process by issuing letters of recommendations and arrange for transportation. Thank you Madam, reading your piece is always a pleasure.

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  • Shahid
    Jul 31, 2012 - 3:36AM

    It’s a truly informative article. The writer has masterfully described whole issue with proper context. Burmese Govt would shoot itself in the foot if instead of dealing with Rohingyas with equity it resorted to disgusting islamophobic approach of America. Hopefully better sense will prevail in Rangoon.

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  • najma shaikh
    Jul 31, 2012 - 4:47AM

    Budhist are playing a big role of terrerists at burma,where is now UNO.,US,UK, and other humain right agencies?in burma only muslims r killing by budhist why not other ppl of christain community?its an open war against muslims in the name of religion and politics,if same story happens in any muslim country with christians and hindues then amarica,uno,european countries will try to attack that country,its true.shame on amarica,shame on uno and other western countries.Recommend

  • vasan
    Jul 31, 2012 - 6:49AM

    “Reportedly, 350,000 Rohingyas were trained in the past couple of decades in madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
    Ha this is the catch, all light and sound show is for the loss of “Strategic assets” of Pakistan. The burmese may be right to fight with Rohingyas as they seem to have a lot of jihadis trained in Pakistani nurseries. The Bangladesh is also right not to take these potential trouble makers. Even if Pakistan sends ships for their evacuation, I wonder how many will go to Pakistan, considering their treatment of the biharis.

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  • Superficial
    Jul 31, 2012 - 10:11AM

    Even UN and other neutral observers are concerned about the persecution of Muslims but Pakistani liberals want to live in a state of denial. Why? Liberals have a problem even if someone protests peacefully or show concern for their brethren. Why?

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  • zaman khan
    Jul 31, 2012 - 10:47AM

    well researched article
    humanity should not be divided on the name of religion
    the rights of all kind of minorities should be defended inside and outside pakistan

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  • Ne
    Jul 31, 2012 - 2:21PM

    Well written article! But due to her shallow knowledge on Arakan and Rohingya History and failing to mention what has really caused today’s riot, she doesn’t deserve any credit. Sorry.

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  • abhi
    Jul 31, 2012 - 3:11PM

    I really don’t understand if you guys have so much soft corner for these rohingyas why not settle them in pak. anyway like most of the pakistani they claimed to be of arab heritage.

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  • vantje
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:21PM

    yes go on close your eyes and when a muslim will reply with a batle then you will say islam is a religion of batle the killed innocent budism blabla

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  • Shahid
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:22AM

    @abhi:
    Pakistan will certainly open it’s arms if Rohingyas asked for shelter in the name of humanity and Islam. Pakistan has shown this in the past by perpetually accommodating more than 3 million Afghan Muslims without showing any regret.

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  • ethicalman
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:46PM

    Look at what Muslims are doing to Hindus and other minorties in Pakistan and then talk about other countires..you ppl have no moral stand against other countries..

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  • Ganesh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:11PM

    @Shahid
    Ideally Pak should give shelter to all Sub continent muslims who seek their refuge!!that will make pak a Great Muslim country!!

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  • Imtiaz
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:16PM

    What we see in current incident is the state patronized and organized mass killing of Muslims. Military and state supported Monks are shedding blood of women, children and old-age people. It is noway of dealing the situation of separatist movement. It is clear violation of human rights. International organization should take serious action of this holocaust.

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  • kashfi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 10:53PM

    ayesha u have not discussed the aspect that burma is the battle ground of us china efforts to take the advantage in a important area where china wants to expand its influence in the south,its all the by products of the tug of war,it needs a thorough discussion.

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  • Ammar
    Aug 1, 2012 - 10:58PM

    350,000 Rohingya received training in Pakistan? Really Ayesha? Where on earth are you getting these facts from, considering there’s around 200,000 Rohingya in Total in the country.

    These kinds of ‘reported’ facts really damage your credibility Ms. Siddiqa.

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  • MT
    Aug 4, 2012 - 10:55PM

    @Ganesh:
    @Shahid
    that would be really great. Muslim countries should take care each others rather than keep telling that Rohingya are belonged to Burma. By doing this Pakistan will get good image and Burma will be left in peace.

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  • Attaullah
    Aug 5, 2012 - 4:17AM

    respected Mam! when i read your book” Military Inc”, i came to know that few people in this country can challenge the authority of mighty institutions. I want to contact you through email and inviting you to Forman Christian college Lahore for a lecture. can i get your email ID.

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