The Outsiders
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, October 18, 2018
Magazine

COVER STORY

The Outsiders


By Harry Priestley/Rangoon JANUARY, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.1


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In a country where discrimination against minority groups is a fact of life, Muslims are bottom of the heap.

There is a saying that if you lose control of your bicycle in Burma’s western Arakan State, you shouldn’t worry as it will stop when it hits a kala.

Kala is Burmese slang for outsider, or alien, and although Caucasians are sometimes referred to as white kala, the term is more commonly used for anyone dark skinned, usually of Indian origin. While some shrug the term off, others consider it abusive and degrading: an insult to people whose ancestors may have fought for the country and who consider themselves wholly Burmese.

However the name is interpreted, the fact remains that Burmese Muslims of Southern Asian descent—there is also a small community of Chinese Muslims, the Panthay, with roots in southern Yunnan province—are treated very much as outsiders. Some Buddhist Burmese complain that Muslims refuse to integrate, or sneer at their religious practices. Others will look you in the eye and tell of a Muslim master plan to convert Burmese women to Islam, raise children and, eventually, take over the country.

A Buddhist taxi driver in Rangoon rolled his eyes when I asked him whether he liked Muslim people: “They kill cattle,” he said, referring to Eid Al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. “We need cattle to work in the rice fields, but they kill them.”

The ceremony is an important date in the Muslim calendar, commemorating Allah’s challenge to Ibrahim, and the meat from the sacrificed animal is shared among the community. Although the meat is gratefully accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, many Buddhists find the ceremony offensive.

“We definitely have an image problem,” admits Ahmed, a local Muslim leader speaking after Friday prayers at one of Rangoon’s downtown mosques. “We encourage people to be discreet, so as not to offend others, but I think sometimes we make local people feel like they are living with strangers—the way some of us dress, the way we speak, our activities. We are partly responsible.”

The “some of us” here illustrates the divide even within the Muslim community. As Moshe Yegar points out in his 1972 study The Muslims of Burma, there are deep-rooted differences between the Rohingyas of Arakan State, the fundamentalist “Indian Muslims” who are mostly based in Rangoon and those who have striven for total integration: “These are different groups that do not identify with each other, do not share the same goals and aspirations, and hardly ever cooperated in any of that community’s struggles.”

The first Muslims to settle in what is now Burma are believed to have been Persian and Arab mariners who landed on the Arakan coast back in the 8th or 9th century and, according to records, their descendents served under King Anawrahta (1044-1077) and his son King Sawlu (1077-1088). The 12th and 13th centuries saw the arrival of more seafarers, as well as an influx of Muslims from present-day Bangladesh—the Rohingyas. The kingdom of Arakan fell to the Burmese toward the end of the 18th century and was ceded to the British 40 years later, during the first Anglo-Burmese war.

When the British embarked on their annexation of Lower Burma in 1824, they brought with them significant numbers of migrants from South Asia, a number of whom assumed key posts in business, politics and the civil service. Many retained their positions following independence in 1948, and during the fifties and early sixties there were several notable Muslim MPs and ministers.

But when General Ne Win swept to power on a wave of nationalism in 1962, things began to change. Expelled from the government and army, Burmese Muslims found themselves ever more marginalized. The position of Muslims in society and the legacy of independence heroes such as Abdul Razak, better known as Saya Gyi U Razak (see box), who was assassinated along with national icon general Aung San, was slowly being eroded.

A 2002 report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (“Crackdown on Burmese Muslims”) notes: “There is no written directive that bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government...but in practice that is what happens.”

“There is definitely discrimination in the workplace,” says Aesop, a local Muslim businessman. “There are no Muslim headmasters or directors of companies. No professors.



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