At the time of writing, more than 120,000 Rohingya – dubbed the world’s most persecuted people – have fled Rakhine state, in Myanmar’s west.
Global condemnation of the Myanmar government, especially of its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been almost universal.
Myanmar’s many minorities, including Muslims, have long faced a troubled and at times bloody relationship with the dominant Burmese majority who inhabit the core Irrawaddy Delta.
Still, Muslims have long been an integral part of Myanmese public life. Various rulers over the centuries, including King Mindon in the 19th century, encouraged Muslim settlement and mosque-building, seeing the community as an important source of commerce and revenue.
But the British defeat of Mindon’s Konbaung dynasty had a searing impact on the national consciousness, engendering a deep-rooted xenophobia. Unlike in Malaysia and Indonesia, where colonisers governed through local sultans, in Burma (as the country was then known) the administration was unequivocally British, managed from Calcutta and later Delhi.
Burma was also an extremely valuable territory commercially. Timber, precious stones and petroleum drew foreign capital and labour deep into the heart of what had been a proud, ethnically Burmese, polity. Moreover, Marwari and Chettiar traders and moneylenders from the subcontinent soon realised the immense potential for rice cultivation, turning Burma within a matter of years into a major rice-exporting region.
To cut costs, the same businessmen imported labour from nearby Bengal – suppressing domestic wages and displacing countless local farmers.
By the second world war, almost half of Rangoon’s (now Yangon’s) population was Indian.
This deepened the resentment of native Burmese who viewed the newcomers – many of whom happened to be Muslim – as intruders.
This led to anti-immigrant riots in Rangoon. The second world war and the violence thereafter prompted many millions of Indians to leave Rangoon. But many remained.
For Myanmar’s millions of Muslims today, the violence in Rakhine is deeply unsettling. Interestingly, official figures say the Muslim minority makes up only 3 to 4 per cent of the population, while NGOs say that figure is closer to 12 to 13 per cent.
Whatever it is, the Muslim minority, whilst highly visible and densely packed in downtown Yangon, is also spread across the interior with mosques in small cities and towns like Bago, Mawlamyine and Meiktila.
So while international attention is rightly focused on the Rakhine situation, it’s important to remember that not all Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya, although their situation can sometimes be just as precarious.
Many complain about formal and informal discrimination, including the use of the term “kalar”, which is seen as derogatory, by non-Muslims against them.
In light of recent events, I contacted Myanmese Muslim friends to get a sense of how they viewed things. To protect them, I have changed their names in some instances.
Regular readers of my column will be familiar with U Tin Win, a 71-year-old Myanmese Muslim former truck driver, and his struggles to obtain papers for his grandchildren.
When contacted, it would appear that the problem had not abated.
“Even my uncle who works as a customs officer can’t get an ID card,” he said. “He lost it and despite having all the necessary documents, still hasn’t received a new one because he is Muslim.”
For others, the fear is over their safety.
Chit, a Myanmese Muslim in his early 30s, works as a taxi driver in Yangon, where there are many mosques and Muslims. Despite that, he often feels insecure.
“Everywhere in Myanmar, Buddhists think Muslims are terrorists who are trying to overthrow the government. There is a lot of fake news on social media spreading this propaganda. That’s how violent sentiments spread outside the Rakhine state.”
“Fortunately, I don’t look overtly Muslim, so I can get by without too much hassle.”
In Myanmar, “looking Muslim” means being dark-skinned, having Indian features, and being bearded for men or wearing the hijab for women.
Naing, a Muslim resident of Meiktila, has graver concerns.
“There was a fight between a Muslim and a Buddhist a few weeks ago. In one village called Chan Aye, soldiers imposed a night curfew and are guarding the place very tightly. Hopefully, the violence from Rakhine will not spread here.”
In her early 20s, Naing is pessimistic about the prospects for her people.
“Buddhists aren’t allowed to buy or sell land from Muslims. The Ma Ba Tha (the movement of extremist Buddhist monks) will stop it. Some months ago, they almost killed a Muslim man and destroyed his house for buying his land from a Buddhist.”
The discrimination affects even well-to-do Myanmese Muslims, like Kyaw, a veteran businessman with financial interests in Myanmar and overseas.
“I attended a high-level diplomatic course where ministers and ambassadors were also present,” Kyaw said. “They used ‘kalar’ there to refer to Myanmese Muslims. TV shows and movies use the word all the time. The racism is everywhere.
“In smaller towns, there are signs that are displayed outside shops to show which businesses are Buddhist-owned, so they can discriminate against us. To make deals, I have to use Buddhist proxies, otherwise I would never survive.”
What surprised me is that there was relatively little bitterness among my Myanmese Muslim friends against Suu Kyi. While she has already broken her long silence over the matter, the fact remains that nothing has been done to stop the violence
U Tin Win, for instance, wholeheartedly believes that she will champion Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. It should be noted that the said document includes the clause: “We, the National people, firmly resolve that we shall uphold racial equality, living eternally in unity fostering the firm Union Spirit of true patriotism.”
Naing, on the other hand, said Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), “don’t have the power to change what is happening. She is doing her best.”
The taxi driver Chit is even appreciative of the NLD. He said: “I think the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the Rakhine violence is very fair. They are trying their hardest and I believe they can solve the issue.”
And Kyaw said that Suu Kyi and the NLD would lose support if they spoke out on the issue.
“I am sure that behind the scenes they are working to help Myanmese Muslims, and the Rohingya, live peacefully,” he said.
Myanmar’s Muslims are in a complex, delicate situation. They know all too well that they could be next in the extremists’ crosshairs after the Rohingya.
Many see Suu Kyi and the NLD as their only hope.
But given the government’s inaction over the violence in Rakhine, their goodwill could very well be forlorn.