Muslims in Burma

   Members of the Islamic community have lived in Burma since before the Pagan Dynasty, arriving by way of Indian Ocean trade routes and the Indian subcontinent. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Burmese government estimated that Muslims comprised 4 percent of the country's population, while other sources estimate it as high as 10 percent. As many as 1.5 million Burmese Muslims live abroad, primarily in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the countries of the Middle East. A substantial number of these have fled persecution at the hands of the government, and Rohingyas, the most numerous refugee group, have been called the "new Palestinians."
   There is considerable diversity among Burmese Muslims. The earliest wave of migrants included merchants and mercenary soldiers of Arab, Iranian, or Indian ancestry who arrived during the precolonial period. In royal capitals, such as Ava (Inwa), Amarapura, and Mandalay, there were special quarters for Muslim merchants and craftsmen, and they were allowed by the king to build mosques for their community. Some Muslims achieved high office under the Burmese kings. There are also Panthays, descendants of Chinese Muslims who came from Yunnan Province during the 19th century and live for the most part in Shan State. During the colonial period, a third group of Muslims migrated from the Indian subcontinent, immigration being encouraged by the British for economic reasons. Many became merchants and civil servants, and Rangoon (Yangon) has extensive Muslim neighborhoods dating from this time. A fourth group, the largest, are the Rohingyas of Arakan (Rakhine) State, including both descendants of migrants from neighboring Bengal (now Bangladesh) and Arakanese (Rakhine) converts to Islam. Because the ancestors of most Burmese Muslims were not resident in the country before the First Anglo-Burmese War, they are not considered "indigenous" and do not enjoy full rights under the Citizenship Law of 1982. Zerbadi (Zerabadi), a term derived from Persian (zir-bad, "below the winds," i.e., Southeast Asia), is used to refer to the children of Muslims (usually Muslim men) and Burmese. Before World War II, such mixed marriages aroused the resentment of Burmese nationalists. Partly to better observe sharia (Islamic law) Muslims in Burma tend to live in segregated communities.
   The Muslim community, especially the Rohingyas, have suffered systematic persecution at the hands of successive governments since Ne Win seized power in 1962, and their social position has deteriorated on a number of fronts. In contrast to the parliamentary government period (1948-1962), they hold no important political offices. Few if any Muslims are found in the higher ranks of the Tatmadaw. Like all Burmese, they are required to carry identification cards stating their religion, which leaves them vulnerable to official discrimination. In recent years, they have often not been allowed to build new mosques, or even repair old ones, and many mosques have been torn down by the authorities, especially in Arakan State. There is ample evidence to suggest that the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council has manipulated popular prejudices to incite mob violence against Muslim neighborhoods. It is also true, however, that such anti-Muslim prejudices are deeply rooted among Burmese Buddhists, including members of the Sangha, stimulated by everyday frictions between Muslims and non-Muslims in an environment of deepening poverty, as well as government-encouraged rumormongering.
   See also Human Rights in Burma.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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