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বার্মাবস্তু

November 5, 2015

Where China Meets India, Burma And The New Crossroad Of Asia ।। Thant Myint-U ।। প্রকাশক : faber and faber ।। মূল্য : UK ₤ 9.99 RRP

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আমি সাধারণত ভ্রমণকাহিনি পড়ি না। কিন্তু কখনো কখনো এমন ভ্রমণকাহিনি হাতে পড়ে তা শুধু না পড়ে থাকা যায় না তা নয় একেবারে শেষ না করে ওঠা যায় না। আমার হাতে এরকম যেকয়েকটা হাতে গোনা ভ্রমণকাহিনি পড়েছে এবং আমাকে তা দ্রুত পড়ে শেষ করতে হয়েছে, সেবইগুলোর মধ্যে একটা মিল আছে – আমি দেখেছি ইতিহাস রাজনীতি অর্থনীতি যখন হয় কোনো ভ্রমণকাহিনির অন্তর্লীন প্রবাহ তখনই আমার কাছে সেভ্রমণকাহিনির টান হয়ে ওঠে অপ্রতিরোধ্য। গত সপ্তাহটা তাই আমি থান্ট মাইইনট-ইউ এর এই ৩৩৩ পৃষ্টার বইটাতেই প্রোথিত ছিলাম। বলা চলে বার্মার ইতিহাস রাজনীতি অর্থনীতির ২১০০/২২০০ বছরে প্রচলের মধ্যে জড়িত হয়ে পড়েছিলাম যার মূল কথা হয়ে উঠেছে এটাই, হাজার হাজার বছর ধরে কীকরে একটা অঞ্চল এরকম বিচ্ছিন্ন বস্তু হয়ে বিন্যস্ত হয়ে থাকতে পারে।

বার্মা কেন খিড়কি হয়েছিল, তিব্বত সিচুয়ান ইউনানের খিড়কি হয়ে থাকার নিয়তি তাকে কেন বরণ করতে হয়েছিল – এ কেমন বস্তু যার অস্তিত্ব সর্বক্ষণ পর্যালোচিত কিন্তু যাকে উন্মুক্ত করার কোনো প্রয়োজন নেই বলে সে চিরদিনের জন্যই আবদ্ধ। বার্মা আসাম পর্যন্ত তার দখলে নিয়েছিল আবার যখন আসাম হারাতে হল তখন হারাল – ইস্টইন্ডিয়া কোম্পানির আয়ত্তে স্কটিশরা আমাদের বাঙালিরা বড়ব্যবসা ছোটব্যবসা শিক্ষকতা ওকালতি ডাক্তারি সবই করল আবার একসময় তাদের যখন তাড়িয়ে দেয়া হল তারা চলে এল বার্মাতেই বার্মা শক্তিশালী হল – জাপানিরা চীনের বিরুদ্ধে বার্মা পর্যন্ত নিজেদের বিস্তারিত করেছিল কিন্তু যখন জাপানিদের হটে যেতে হল তখন বার্মা তো বার্মাতেই পড়ে রইল – বার্মা স্বাধীন হল, বার্মা কমিউনিস্ট হবে ভাবল, বার্মা সামরিক বাহিনির হয়ে গেল, বার্মায় গৃহযুদ্ধ চলল, বার্মায় বাণিজ্য নিষেধাজ্ঞা চলতে লাগল, বার্মায় গণতন্ত্রের আহবান এলো গণতন্ত্র গৃহবন্দী এলো, গৃহবন্দীত্ব কাটতেও চলল – কিন্তু বার্মার খিড়কি দশা কি কাটবে? বার্মার সাধারণ মানুষের জীবন কী শেষ পর্যন্ত পাবে জীবনমানের প্রসারের কাঙ্ক্ষিত গতি? বার্মা নদীসমুদ্রের দেশ হয়েও হয়ে থাকল আবদ্ধভুমি, এই শতকে বার্মার কি ঘটবে সেই মুক্তি যাতে বার্মা আর খিড়কি হয়ে থাকবে না হয়ে উঠবে ইউনানের সিচুয়ানের তিব্বতের মুক্তির দুয়ার? এবং সেটাই ঘটাবে চীন সেটাই চাইবে ভারত?

একটা কথা ঠিক, বার্মা সামনেই এগুবে এবার, আর আবদ্ধ থাকবে না বার্মা, কিন্তু সেটা শেষ পর্যন্ত বার্মাকেই করতে হবে, চীন কী ঘটাবে ভারত কী চাইবে তা নয় বার্মা কী করবে তাই গড়বে বার্মার ভবিষ্যত।

আপনারা লক্ষ্য করে থাকবেন আমি আরাকানের কথা বলিনি রোহিঙ্গার কথা বলিনি বাংলাদেশের কথা বলিনি – কিন্তু আমি বলতে চেয়েছিলাম, বলতে পারছি না কারণ লেখক বাংলাদেশের কথা শেখ হাসিনার কথা যৎসামনান্য বললেও আরাকানের কথা রোহিঙ্গার কথা একদম বলেননি – কেন বললেন না? আরাকান সেই বার্মা নয় যেবার্মা রেঙ্গুন যেবার্মা মান্ডালায় যেবার্মা শান যেবার্মা কাচিন – আরাকান সেই বার্মা নয় যেবার্মা বর্মন তিব্বতি-বর্মন : সেটা অবশ্য ঠিক আরাকান তো রাখাইনদের আরাকান তো রোহিঙ্গাদের এবং আরাকান কখনোই খিড়কি ছিল না, আরাকান খিড়কির অধিকৃত ভূমি, খিড়কির অধিকৃত ভূমির প্রতি বার্মার আচরণ অধিকৃত ভূমির প্রতি সাধারণত নিষ্ঠুর আচরণের মতোই হবে।

আবার যেহেতু ভ্রমণকাহিনি যেহেতু তিনি আরাকান বাংলাদেশ ভ্রমণ করেননি তাই আরাকান বাংলাদেশের কথা লেখেননি, সেক্ষেত্রে কৌতুহল হতে পারে তিনি আরাকান বাংলাদেশ ভ্রমণ করলেন না কেন।

যাই হোক আমি এখনো পর্যন্ত বার্মা নিয়ে এর চেয়ে ভাল কিছু পড়িনি – কাজেই আর কথা বাড়াব না, বার্মার ভবিষ্যতের কথা ভেবে বইটি পড়ে ফেলুন তাতে অনেকের চেয়ে ভবিষ্যতে আপনি বার্মা সম্বন্ধে বেশি জানবেন কারণ বইটি খুবই সুলিখিত এবং কে না জানে একটি সুলিখিত বইয়ের মতো আর কিছুই আপনাকে বেশি জানতে সহায়তা করতে পারে না।

বইটি থেকে আমি কোনো উদ্ধৃতি ব্যবহার করলাম না, কিন্তু বইটিতে ব্যবহৃত চারটি অমূল্য মানচিত্র এখানে তুলে দিলাম। এমানচিত্রগুলো আমার মনে হয় ‘শুরুয়াত’এর কাজ করবে, ‘বন আপেতি’ বার্মা এন্ড দি ক্রসরোড অফ এশিয়া ‘বন আপেতি’ থান্ট মাইইনট-ইউ।

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কমিউনিটি ব্লগে, বইপ্রস্থ ৮

9 Comments
  1. Rohingya Muslims have nowhere to go
    http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/AX8nAa4AvhBosynqtL2XVI/Rohingya-Muslims-have-nowhere-to-go.html

    Once again, the Myanmar military has gone on a rampage in Rakhine, burning homes, razing villages, intimidating, threatening and expelling the stateless Rohingya Muslims. Many have been killed and women have alleged rape. Credible reports suggest some bodies have been burnt to destroy evidence. Many are desperately trying to escape to Bangladesh, which appears to have, at least for now, shed its hostility towards the influx and is letting them in.

    Rohingya Muslims’ rights are severely curtailed in Myanmar—they can’t practise their religion (Islam) freely, cannot meet in large gatherings, face discrimination when they look for work, and there are restrictions on the number of children they can have. They are not included in the census, and they do not have voting rights. In June, Myanmar didn’t let UN investigators visit Rakhine.

    Senior army general Min Aung Hlaing has called the recent crackdown “unfinished business” dating back to World War II. Over the weekend, the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counsellor (and de facto president) and a fellow laureate, to save Rohingyas. She is silent.

    Aung San Suu Kyi was once among the world’s most well-known prisoners of conscience. She led a non-violent struggle for democracy against military might, earning global respect and many honours, including the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993 when she was under house arrest. But since her release in late 2010, the world has discovered a different Suu Kyi. Her reluctance to criticize the military was earlier seen as strategic, until she had won elections. Those hopes have been misplaced.

    She appears to hold the majoritarian view that Rohingya Muslims are not citizens of Myanmar. In private conversations, she has blamed Myanmar’s poor immigration controls for the crisis, reinforcing the idea that Rohingyas are illegal immigrants, even though they have lived in western Myanmar for centuries. Even in her acclaimed collection of essays, Letters From Burma (1997), the word “Rohingya” does not appear. Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups do not include Rohingyas. Since her party came to power, Myanmar has complained to the US state department, saying it should not use the term Rohingya, and instead call them Bengalis.

    Explaining her reticence, in 2012 Suu Kyi had said that she wanted to work towards reconciliation between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which would be difficult were she to take sides. Since then, the violence has worsened, with the overwhelming blame falling on the army. While Suu Kyi has been the army’s prisoner, she feels kinship with the army. In 2012, on BBC’s radio programme Desert Island Discs, she had said that all Burmese soldiers were like her family, since her father, General Aung San, was the father of the Burmese army.

    The army’s antagonism towards Rohingyas dates back at least to World War II, when the Burmese army under General Aung San had initially sided with the Japanese (before switching to the British towards the end of the war), while many Muslims supported the British. The Japanese had expelled Rohingyas to northern Arakan (as Rakhine was known then), which was under British control. At Burma’s independence from the British in 1948, Arakanese Muslims wanted to join East Pakistan, but Mohammed Ali Jinnah refused. When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, Burma asked Bangladesh to take the Rohingya Muslims, but Bangladesh declined. Since the late 1970s, Myanmar’s army has frequently attacked Rohingyas, forcing many to make a hazardous journey through the narrow Naf river and reach south-eastern Bangladesh, where they settle in ramshackle tents in sprawling camps like Kutupalong. Many others are trafficked to South-East Asia.

    Rakhine forms the frontier between Muslim and Buddhist Asia, so violence there has wider implications. As the South-East Asia expert Michael Vatikiotis notes in the Nikkei Asian Review, there have been protests near the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Indonesia’s second largest Muslim group, Muhammadiya, has called for Myanmar’s expulsion from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Other Asean countries—including southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines—have long-running insurgencies involving Muslim groups, and continued oppression of Rohingya Muslims can ignite the region.

    It is in this context that the Indian home ministry’s advisory to states to detect and deport Rohingya Muslims is so perplexing and inhumane. The National Human Rights Commission has cautioned the government, saying that even if the refugees are not citizens, the government should consider that they might face persecution if they are pushed back. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the home ministry note.

    India has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it has abided by its spirit, and generously hosted refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan over the years. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that refugees have certain rights, including the right to life and liberty, and in 2015, asked the Centre to extend citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees from Bangladesh.

    Indian law, India’s practice of abiding by international expectations, long tradition of compassion, and humanitarian impulse, all suggest that India should let the Rohingyas remain, and join the collective global outrage which seeks to remind Aung San Suu Kyi of who she used to be, or was believed to be, so that she lives up to the image she once had.

  2. Myanmar, an unfinished nation

    Historical tensions over identity still threaten country’s future

    https://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Thant-Myint-U/Myanmar-an-unfinished-nation

    Almost exactly 80 years ago, Burma, now Myanmar, was separated from India. It is an anniversary that has passed virtually unnoticed, even though separation was one of the most important turning points in the country’s history.

    In 1935 the U.K. parliament passed its Government of Burma Act, and in mid-1937 Burma went from being a province of the Indian Empire to something just shy of a dominion, with its own semi-elected government, a parliament, and a governor answerable directly to London. It was meant as a step toward home-rule and a recognition of Burma’s distinct identity.

    Separation had come after years of heated deliberation. But problems related to issues of identity were only just beginning, and over the remainder of the 20th century would lead to war, isolation and impoverishment. Today, the same issues haunt the peace process between the government and ethnic-based armed organizations, the fate of Muslim communities, and even the country’s opening to global business. They remain largely unresolved and are central to Myanmar’s future.

    Separation from India was a triumph for Burman nationalism. The Burmans (now generally referred to as the Bamar) are the overwhelmingly Buddhist, Burmese-speaking majority of the Irrawaddy valley. Three 19th century conflicts, known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars, had crippled and then destroyed their empire, which at its zenith stretched from near Bhutan to the outskirts of Bangkok. In 1885 the British abolished their thousand-year-old monarchy and annexed the Irrawaddy valley to the new Indian province of “British Burma.” The Burman national psyche never really recovered.

    Colonial rule brought economic growth and with it the unregulated emigration of millions of people from across the Indian subcontinent. Burma was then a more prosperous land, the “first America” for many Indian families, a place of opportunity and personal reinvention. In the late 1920s Rangoon, now Yangon, rivaled New York as the world’s largest immigrant port, receiving 428,300 people in 1927 alone (when the total population was around 10 million). Rangoon became an Indian city.

    For the Burmans, modernity meant a society with Europeans at the top and Indians dominating the professions and business and filling out the new urban working class. Feelings soured, also against the much smaller but significant immigrant Chinese community. With the Great Depression, tensions boiled over: the first anti-Indian riots in Rangoon were in 1930, the first anti-Chinese in 1931.

    Racial pride

    A fresh generation of politicians emerged around this time, aiming to restore racial pride. One of the more radical groups named itself Do Bama or We Burmans, inspired in particular by the Irish nationalism of Sinn Fein. Their song, which is today’s national anthem, includes the refrain: “This is our land.” In other words, it is not yours. Many viewed foreign corporations as naturally exploitative and were attracted to Europe’s far right as well as far left. Some saw Buddhism as endangered, and communal violence by 1938 began to take on an anti-Muslim complexion. Burman nationalism started as what we might today call an anti-globalization and anti-immigration movement.

    It was not always like this. Burman kings in the 18th and 19th centuries had claimed descent from the Sakiyan clan of the Gautama Buddha and saw India as a sacred land and center of knowledge. Right up to the fall of Mandalay in 1885, Indian ways were viewed as something to be emulated. That year, a Brahmin from Benares named Govinda was invited to review and, as necessary, correct royal rituals.

    This May, Facebook banned the word Kala as a racial slur, a form of hate speech. But not long ago, to be a Kala suggested high status. There was though, even in the pre-colonial era, a rising anxiety about the Kala. To the Burman court, the word Kala was an ethnonym that incorporated all similar looking (in local eyes) peoples from the west: Indians primarily, but also Persians, Arabs, and Europeans, including the Kala of Bilat (or England, from the Urdu Wilayat, the same as “Blighty”). But by the 19th century a notion had entered Burman thinking, that they were the race of the Buddha and that the Christian and Muslim Kala were interlopers in the holy land. In 1855 King Mindon told the visiting official Sir Arthur Phayre: “Our race once reigned in all the countries you hold. Now the Kala have come close up to us.”

    Colonialism turned respect mixed with anxiety into racial animosity. With separation came curbs on immigration. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, hundreds of thousands of Indians fled, fearing Burman nationalist violence, never to return. Many more left at independence, and again in the 1960s when both Indian and Chinese businesses were nationalized as part of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” By then xenophobia had become official policy.

    Divided lands and loyalties

    The 1935 Burma Act also reinforced internal divisions. Burma before colonialism was always a place of different peoples and kingdoms, rising and falling, as anywhere else. The map of modern Burma is new. But late colonial rule did nothing to integrate this new country, instead hardening ethnic categories and political partitions.

    Through the imperial censuses, conducted every 10 years from 1861 to 1931, the British tried to make sense of the ethnic mix. In India, people were differentiated by caste. And for a while, Burmans, Arakanese, and some others were listed together in caste tables as “Semi-Hindooised Aboriginees.” By the early 1900s, however, the British began categorizing peoples in Burma by language, drawing on fashionable ideas in comparative linguistics. This dovetailed to an extent with pre-colonial conceptions that also listed distinct Burman, Shan, Mon and other “races” (lu-myo or “kinds of people”).

    But it was in the 20th century that ethnicity became seen as something immutable and linked to state policy. Some races were seen as indigenous, others not. Some were recruited into the army while others, like the Burmans, were largely left out.

    There was a geographical division as well. The lowlands of Burma were placed under direct colonial administration and then granted increasing self-government. This was the Burma of globalization, immigration, anti-colonial politics and rising Burman nationalism. The biggest “indigenous” minority were the Karen, with their own Christian leadership and their own rising nationalist aspirations; together with Indians and “Anglo-Indians” they were given communal seats in the 1937 parliament.

    In the approach to independence, Karen leaders asked London for their own ethnic homeland within the Commonwealth. They had fought loyally with the British during the war, and felt betrayed when this was politely refused.

    But there was an altogether different Burma, the “Frontier Areas,” comprising half the country, ruled indirectly, through their own hereditary chiefs, and excluded entirely from economic modernization and from the political reforms of the 1930s. In 1947 with the British rushing for the exits, the Shan and other chiefs opted, somewhat tentatively, to join the rest in a new republic. Autonomy was promised and in this way, ideas of ethnicity and territory were fused.

    The decades since have been a time of failed nation building, a failure to overcome colonial legacies, war linked to ethnicity, and self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

    At the heart of the challenge is Burman or Bamar nationalism and its relationship to a potentially inclusive national identity. The Burman nationalist focus has been to unite and protect the country from what it sees as the existential threat posed by outsiders, especially the big neighboring peoples, the Indians and the Chinese. Integrating minorities accepted as “indigenous” is for many Burmans an obvious aim.

    For other “indigenous” peoples though, the challenge is Burman nationalism itself, inequality in the post-independence republic, exclusion from economic opportunities, and fear that their own identities will dissolve in a Burman-dominated process of modernization.

    Remaking identities

    And who is indigenous? Drawing in part on the 1921 imperial census, Myanmar’s military overlords in the early 1990s published a list of 135 indigenous “nationalities.” Included at the margins were the Kaman (a Muslim people descended from the bodyguard of a 17th century refugee Mughal prince), and the Chinese-speaking Kokang (whose ancestors fled the Manchus in the 1600s). The old ethnonym Myanmar was rebranded to include all those deemed indigenous (taing-yin-tha).

    Excluded were the descendants of 19th and 20th century Indian and Chinese immigrants. Also excluded was the Muslim population in Rakhine State – now accounting for about one third of the state’s 3.1 million-plus population. Burman (or “Bamar”) and Rakhine nationalists view them as the product of colonial-era migrants from Bengal, or more recent illegal immigrants. They themselves have increasingly adopted the name “Rohingya,” implying that they, too, are indigenous. It is this implication of indigeneity that is so hotly contested and makes the very word “Rohingya” a centerpiece of fiery debate.

    The upsurge in violence since 2012 is to an extent a local ethnic conflict going back to World War II, but the pathology that fuels discrimination is tied to the anti-immigration roots of modern politics. And on all sides are views of ethnicity as never-changing, of “ethnic groups” that must be included or excluded from the emerging nation.

    And what of the future? Myanmar is a country changing fast. People are moving around as never before, both abroad and within the country, mixing and inter-marrying. Urbanization is gathering pace and soon most will live in a few of the bigger cities. Myanmar’s leaders say they are marching toward democracy, peace and economic integration with the outside world. But the country carries with it the baggage of colonial-era ethnography and post-colonial nativism that can readily feed further ethnic conflict and renewed xenophobia.

    In this respect, Myanmar’s biggest threat is not the return of dictatorship but an illiberal democracy linked to a negative nationalism. It is time for an honest and critical reexamination of history and a fresh search for a more inclusive, 21st century Myanmar identity.

  3. What to do about Burma

    https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n03/-thantmyint-u/what-to-do-about-burma

    There is an enduring myth that in 1948, when it achieved independence from Britain, Burma was a rich country with every reason to expect a bright future and that the policies and practices of the military government are alone to blame for today’s miseries. It is beyond dispute that many of these policies and practices have been disastrous. But there is a deeper history of misfortune which needs to be understood.

    At independence, Burma was a country devastated by war, with a collapsed economy and a peculiarly debilitating colonial legacy dating back to 1885, when Lord Randolph Churchill, the secretary of state for India, dispatched an expeditionary force to sort out the ‘Burma problem’ of the day.

    When the Burma Expeditionary Force seized Mandalay, British policy-makers decided not only to dethrone the king, Thibaw, but to abolish the monarchy altogether. The nobility was soon disbanded too and families who had held sway over their villages for centuries were fatally undermined. The old social order collapsed during the ‘pacification’ campaign of the late 1880s, when tens of thousands of British and Indian troops attempted to quell unexpectedly harsh guerrilla resistance, and with this collapse came the disappearance of an ancient tradition of Buddhist and secular scholarship. This was followed by a period of peace and considerable prosperity, which lasted from the early 1890s to the late 1920s. There were new connections – intellectual as well as commercial – to England, India and elsewhere, and a generation of well-educated men and women hoped to be part of a more progressive world. But the foundations of future problems were being laid.

    There was, for example, a massive influx of immigrants from other parts of British India. In some years, more than two million Indians arrived in Burma, mostly to work, and though many eventually left, enough stayed for the Indian portion of the population to grow rapidly. In the 1920s and 1930s, more than two-thirds of the inhabitants of Rangoon were ethnic Indians. Indians became the country’s wealthiest businessmen, doctors and lawyers, as well as its shopkeepers, industrial workers and labourers. Their presence was, in many ways, a huge advantage to the country, but any sudden, large-scale immigration is bound to create problems, and this one contributed to the growth of a particularly sour and defensive Burmese nationalism.

    Equally damaging was London’s long indifference to Burmese concerns and sensitivities, its treatment of Burma as just one more province of India. Ethnic minorities – the Karen and the Kachin, for example – were brought into the Indian army and military police, but the ethnic Burmese (two-thirds of the population) were classed as a ‘non-martial race’, which angered a people brought up on stories of ancient military prowess. In the 1920s, young radicals looked to the IRA for inspiration; in the 1930s, to Stalin’s Russia. Some also looked to Japan.

    The Japanese invasion of 1941-42 turned Burma into a giant battlefield, drawing in hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, and igniting an ethnic conflict, between the Burmese and the Karen, which continues to this day. Over the course of the war, dozens of cities and towns were obliterated; bridges and railway lines, dockyards and ports, oilfields and refineries were blown up; and the civil administration collapsed everywhere. A small group of Burmese student politicians, led by the charismatic Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), escaped from the country, received military training from the Japanese, and then reappeared alongside the invaders as the Burma Independence Army. They helped to form a government of collaborators, before tiring of the Japanese and eventually turning against them in March 1945, just in time to style themselves as an Allied force. Student radicals had turned into partisans, and in 1945 the country was awash with weapons.

    London meanwhile needed a Burma policy. During their wartime exile in Simla, Reginald Dorman-Smith, the governor before the British retreat in 1942, and his colleagues drew up what became a White Paper for the reconstruction of the Burmese economy and a gradual transition to home rule. A representative executive council, including all the political parties, would advise the governor before fresh elections could be held. Ethnic minorities in the highlands would be fully consulted on their place in an independent Burma. But Aung San’s group, now fashionably called the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, demanded to be recognised immediately as a provisional government. The 31-year-old Aung San was already wildly popular and his speeches were attracting huge crowds. But for London, in late 1945, Burma was low down on any list of priorities.

    A showdown took place, between Dorman-Smith, increasingly aware of the need to placate Aung San but charged by Whitehall with implementing his dated White Paper, and Aung San himself, presiding precariously over a coalition of Communists and socialists, militia leaders and former Japanese collaborators, all now dreaming their different dreams of the Burma to come.

    In August 1945, Aung San had flown to Kandy to meet with Mountbatten, then supreme allied commander for South-East Asia. What emerged from their discussions was a new Burma army, with half its battalions drawn from the old British-trained Burma Army, mainly Karen and Kachin soldiers from the highlands, and half from Aung San’s Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army, almost all of whose officers were die-hard Burmese nationalists. Throughout the colonial period, the highlands had been ruled with a light hand and separately from ‘Burma proper’. Many of the Karen and Kachin had converted to Christianity and there was considerable distrust between the two halves of this new army. It was a recipe for disaster.

    In the Burmese version, the story of 1946 is the story of Aung San and his colleagues refusing to compromise, heroically leading ‘the people’ and facing down the British Empire. In fact, in 1946, Burma was at best a minor irritant given the enormous challenges Britain faced at home, as well as in Europe, Palestine and India. Allied forces in Burma had been rapidly scaled down and Nehru made it clear that Indian troops would not be on hand to quell a nationalist revolt. Aung San threatened violence, then pulled back from the brink to demonstrate who was now in charge.

    Had Britain desperately wanted to remain in Burma, it would have been able to deal with Aung San, but with India on the eve of independence, the Burmese economy a shambles and the country no longer of any strategic importance, Burma just wasn’t worth the effort. The Labour government decided to give it up. The White Paper was revoked; Dorman-Smith was replaced by Hubert Rance. Aung San then called a general strike: tens of thousands took to the streets. Rance quickly entered into negotiations with Aung San, who was invited to London. And in London, in January 1947, Britain agreed essentially to hand over power to Aung San and his League. Independence would come within a year. In the interim, he would form a cabinet and effectively be treated as a dominion prime minister.

    What happened next is seen by the Burmese as the central tragedy of their modern history. Aung San, a man with a strange and magnetic personality, had managed to gather together in his cabinet many of the country’s most able politicians, including several ethnic minority leaders. But on the morning of 19 July 1947, as the cabinet was meeting in downtown Rangoon, armed men in uniform burst through the wooden doors and killed nearly all its members, including Aung San. It still isn’t clear precisely who was responsible; at least some British officials were most probably involved, though (contrary to Burmese conspiracy theories) there is little to suggest any involvement by the British government. For a politically divided country ravaged by war the loss of these men was incalculable.

    The coalition that Aung San had put together disintegrated. The Communists, under their leader Than Tun, condemned the ‘sham’ independence from Britain, called for a people’s revolution, and prepared for an armed insurrection. Other groups – among them, the Islamic Mujahidin in Arakan (along the Bengal border) and the ‘White Flag’ Communist guerrillas of Thakin Soe – were already in revolt. Even more uncertain was the loyalty of Aung San’s own paramilitary organisation, the huge People’s Volunteer Organisation or PVO: demobbed partisans and newer recruits, young men who had grown up in wartime and could imagine nothing more exciting than the battles they hoped were coming. Nervously watching from the sidelines were the ethnic minorities, especially the Karen, who had seen the rise of a militant ethnic Burmese nationalism and had suffered terribly at the hands of the Burma Independence Army in the early days of the war.

    And so when the last of the Yorkshire Light Infantry sailed away from the docks at Rangoon, Burma was far from being on the road to a happy future. Within weeks, Than Tun’s Communists had attacked government posts up and down the Irrawaddy valley and were soon joined by the PVO. The army began to fall apart, some ethnic Burmese units joining the growing insurrection. In late 1948, the Karen battalions, British-trained and representing more than a third of the armed forces, also peeled away. Cities and towns throughout the lowlands fell to one rebel faction or another, or to bandit gangs and local militia. Mandalay was jointly held by the Communists and the Karen. By February 1949, the army was down to a couple of thousand men, barely holding on to the outskirts of Rangoon and facing widespread insurgency. At its core was the Fourth Burma Rifles, trained by the Japanese and led by General Ne Win, a deputy of Aung San and now the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

    When Aung San was killed, the governor selected his close colleague U Nu to take his place. U Nu was very different from Aung San, less the enigmatic tough guy and more the eccentric, the charmer, the consummate politician – he went on to win three general elections for his party. He was also a committed democrat. In the darkest days of the civil war, it was U Nu who rallied the government side, flying around the country in a seaplane, and setting out his vision of a progressive and internationally-minded Burma. His best friend and confidant, especially on matters of foreign policy, was my grandfather, U Thant, who would later become Burma’s ambassador to the UN and then its third secretary-general. They had both been uneasy with Burmese nationalism’s flirtations with Fascism and were also resolutely opposed to Communism.

    In the meantime General Ne Win and his Japanese-trained officers were doing the actual fighting in the countryside. And it wasn’t easy. Barely had Ne Win’s small army managed to push back the Communists and the Karen when an entirely new enemy emerged in the eastern Shan hills. In 1949, with the fall of Peking and the retreat of Chinese Nationalist forces to Taiwan, a small remnant of Nationalists had retreated southwestward into Burma. The United States began arming and supplying them. The Burmese protested vigorously against this at the UN but in vain. The lesson for Ne Win was clear: Burma couldn’t rely on the UN or international declarations of friendship; it had instead to build up a professional military machine, able to crush the insurgencies but also to defend itself against all its enemies.

    As the insurgents were pushed back, the army began taking over administrative tasks, largely because the civil structures were so fragile and so compromised by political rivalries. The military fretted about political interference in their affairs, and believed that party politics – often corrupt and violent – were too messy to meet Burma’s needs. In the early morning of 2 March 1962, tanks and mechanised units loyal to Ne Win rolled into Rangoon, surrounding Government House and the Secretariat, arrested U Nu and all the other senior political figures, and installed the military dictatorship that survives to this day.

    An army coup in East Asia in the early 1960s was no big deal. Pakistan, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia were or would soon be military dictatorships. But Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council made disastrous policy decisions, which even now lie at the heart of many of Burma’s problems. The first was to nationalise all major industries, including banking and international trade, even though the state lacked the capacity to run them. The second was to expel approximately 400,000 ethnic Indians, including many whose families had lived in Burma for generations. The third was to undermine and eventually dismantle civilian institutions. The parliament was done away with immediately, and over the next decade, the courts, the police, the universities, the civil service and the old British-era system of district administration were critically weakened or abolished as army officers took over. The fourth wrong decision was to seek a military rather than a political solution to the country’s long-running civil war. At first there were talks with the rebels but they soon collapsed and the fighting became more brutal still. Fifth and most important was Ne Win’s decision to isolate Burma from the rest of the world.

    Exactly why he did this is difficult to explain. A failed university student and one time post office clerk, Ne Win quickly came to dominate the armed forces after Aung San’s death. U Nu trusted him. He had a reputation as a man about town, an avid golfer, often to be seen at the race track or the better diplomatic parties. Even after his coup he continued to travel the world, shopping in London and for a while seeing a psychiatrist in Vienna. But he seems to have absorbed the colonial prejudice that the Burmese were, yes, nice people, talented in their own way, but unfit for self-rule, a people not quite ready for the responsibilities of government and needing direction and an iron hand. The Burmese must learn to do things for themselves, the general often said.

    There were other, perhaps higher motives for his actions. In the early 1960s the Vietnam War was underway and China’s Cultural Revolution was imminent. It was easy to see how Burma might be drawn into a superpower conflict. Hiding from the outside world would provide a degree of protection. But it was a catastrophic policy even so. Aid programmes were terminated and all inward investment was banned. Burmese were very rarely allowed out and foreigners were not allowed in, even as tourists. The economy creaked to a standstill. There were shortages of every kind. Very little outside information filtered in. Rangoon turned into a big sprawling village, and the country settled in for a long, nightmarish sleep.

    By the mid-1980s, few people were happy. Ne Win was approaching eighty and increasingly eccentric. Always a keen numerologist, he one day changed all currency notes to denominations divisible by nine (9, 90, 180). Everyone began to feel that something had to change. Even the army was tired of its never ending battles in the distant hills and looked enviously at its peers in South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, who were getting rich in business. In 1988, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets and then rallied behind Aung San Suu Kyi, there was no one to defend the status quo. But how exactly would the country change? Who would be in charge? And how could the outside world best help?

    For the army, the uprising of 1988 was a shock. The government came close to being toppled and the strength of popular feeling was plain to see. Hundreds of people in Rangoon were killed as the government crushed the protests. But then there seemed to be some desire for compromise. People were allowed to form political parties, Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians were (for a while) permitted to campaign, and elections were held in 1990. But when the election returned a landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (rather than the mixed parliament the army was possibly hoping for), and when some in the NLD began to talk about ‘Nuremberg-style’ trials for senior officers, the army went back on its promises.

    Meanwhile, a completely new development – almost entirely unreported in the West – was transforming the political landscape of the country. In the summer of 1989, the Burma Communist Party, the government’s chief battlefield opponent for forty years, with an army of more than twenty thousand well-trained and well-armed troops, collapsed after a mutiny. In the 1960s, the government had come close to defeating it, only to see it re-emerge with the active support of Communist China. By 1970, it controlled a huge swathe of territory in the Shan hills. But in 1989 its army splintered into several ethnic-based militias. The government, reversing its decades-long policy of seeking only a military solution to the civil war, entered into talks with these successor militias and all sides agreed to a ceasefire. The militias would be allowed to keep their arms and their territory, pending a final settlement. (Many turned to trading in narcotics.) Government forces were then able to pressurise or persuade nearly all the remaining ethnic insurgencies to stop fighting. By the mid-1990s, only the Karen National Union held out, but it came under fierce attack and lost all its remaining bases near the Thai border. For the first time in half a century, the guns were almost silent. There was an opportunity finally to end Burma’s civil war, the longest-running armed conflict in the world.

    For many in the West, the Burmese morality play of the past fifteen years has pitted Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters against the army leadership and its Orwellian-sounding State Peace and Development Council. One side stands for democracy and human rights, the other locks up opponents and allows very little political freedom. It’s easy to take sides, easier still to support sanctions or boycotts and be happy that national governments and the UN should continually be expressing concern. But it’s important to see that at least three different challenges currently face Burma: the need to find a just and sustainable end to the armed conflict; the need to help the country undo decades of economic mismanagement and develop its economy; and the need to begin a transition to democratic rule.

    Burma’s history makes all these challenges exceedingly difficult. With the collapse of royal institutions in 1885 and the subsequent failure of colonial institutions to take root, the army is, for better or worse, the only effective national institution left. It’s no surprise that the leading officials of the NLD (other than Aung San Suu Kyi) are all retired army officers. A transition to democracy means not just removing the army from government, it means building up the other institutions that would make a civilian administration possible. Equally important is the country’s history of militant ethnicity, the failure of successive political elites to understand that they live in a multicultural country and need to develop a more inclusive national identity. We tend to see Burma as a Velvet Revolution gone wrong, when in fact it is an impoverished war-torn society of 55 million people, half of them under the age of 18, with armed forces of more than 400,000 men (and over a dozen insurgent armies) who know only the language of warfare.

    Some people still argue that trade and investment sanctions against the Burmese government are the only way to push the army leadership into talking with Aung San Suu Kyi. But the sanctions argument is deeply flawed. First, it assumes a regime very different from the one that actually exists. That is, it assumes a government that is committed to rejoining the world economy, that sees clearly the benefits of trade and investment or is in some way sensitive to the welfare of ordinary people. True, there are some in the army who like the idea of trade and investment and care about popular welfare, and for them sanctions might constitute a sort of pressure. But many in the military don’t care. For them, national security, as they see it, is everything. Compromise might be possible on other issues, but if the choice is between political suicide and interacting with an outside world they fundamentally distrust, then there is no debate. Isolation is their default condition: not ideal, but comfortable all the same.

    Second, sanctions really only mean Western sanctions. In the years since 1988, Burmese trade with China and several other neighbouring countries has grown considerably, and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore. To believe that China would impose sanctions and cut off their access to Burma’s energy supplies in order to push the country towards democracy is naive. Sanctions going beyond those already in place would mean in effect increased influence for China; not something likely to lead to democratic change.

    Third, imagine for a moment that somehow, miraculously, extremely tight sanctions were possible – involving China, India and Thailand – and that these brought the government to its knees, without a dollar or renminbi left to pay for vital imports. While there is a possibility that reasonable heads would prevail, there is also a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their Führerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them. Many of those who support sanctions hope that greater outside pressure would lead to disagreements within the army. Nothing could be more dangerous: the country could easily fall apart into dozens of competing military factions, insurgent armies and drug warlord militias. If that happened, all the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t be enough to put Burma back together; it would be a disaster for Asia.

    The problem with sanctions is best illustrated by the opportunity that was lost in the early 1990s, when a new generation of generals, eager for change, launched a series of reforms and opened up the economy to the outside world. Hundreds of foreign companies set up shop. Rangoon was transformed, with new hotels, shopping centres and official buildings, traffic jams on previously empty roads, and the first real influx of tourists in years. Satellite dishes went up everywhere. But thanks to boycotts and then, in the later 1990s, more formal sanctions (as well as continued government mismanagement of the economy), Western firms began to pull out, leaving Burma in limbo: with more than enough regional trade to stay afloat, but nothing like the momentum to begin changing society. If, over the last fifteen years, there had been aid and investment (as there has been in Vietnam), rather than a half-hearted ‘regime-change’ strategy from the West, there could have been real economic growth and social change. The isolation on which the regime depends would have diminished and it would have become increasingly clear to the officer corps that proper government is too complex for the army to manage. And this in turn would have created a better situation for Burma’s democrats and more leverage for Western governments. As it is, Western leverage is close to zero. Focusing on political change at the top is not the answer.

    This is not to say that Burma shouldn’t be a democracy, or that the Western supporters of democracy and human rights in Burma should give up. Far from it. Liberal democracy is the only sustainable form of government for a country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Burma, but we need to start from the way things are. Per capita aid to Burma is less than a tenth of per capita aid to Vietnam and Cambodia: this should not be acceptable. Serious diplomacy that includes both the Burmese government and its neighbours should have priority over a new round of condemnation.

  4. Myanmar’s resurgent nationalism shapes new political landscape
    https://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Thant-Myint-U/Myanmar-s-resurgent-nationalism-shapes-new-political-landscape

    Extreme sentiments fueled by social media highlight external, internal disconnect

    The United Nations Security Council in recent weeks has placed new focus on Myanmar through discussions about violence in the country’s western Rakhine state, allegations of “ethnic cleansing” and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

    Missing though was the bigger picture in Myanmar, beyond Rakhine, which will not only shape future options for refugee return, but also regional stability, and any possibility of a better life for all the country’s peoples.

    Aside from Rakhine, there are at least another half million internally displaced persons, around 20 ethnic-based armed groups (the largest with more than 20,000 soldiers), hundreds of militias in the rest of the country and no real peace in sight. In addition, the economy is far from healthy, with the stability of the banking sector in question, investor confidence in decline, and prospects for millions of the poorest people in Asia in the balance. Meanwhile, Beijing is offering major infrastructure projects that would tie the country more closely with China’s interior provinces and essentially make Myanmar China’s bridge to the Indian Ocean.

    The current constitution gives the armed forces crucial powers over security while allowing the elected civilian government free reign over economic issues and foreign relations. It has been a tense cohabitation and the success of the next elections in 2020 and further democratic reforms are far from guaranteed.

    For Myanmar’s people, this is a time of anxiety. Millions are worried that the fast pace of change will leave them and their families destitute and without opportunity. These same millions are now on the internet. Over the past five years the proportion of people with mobile phones has gone from a few percent to more than 70%. A population that still largely lacks access to electricity, clean water or health care is now on Facebook, widely regarded as Myanmar’s only social media platform.

    New dark currents

    In this time of national anxiety, a neo-nationalism is taking shape, enabled by social media and fueled both by the unfolding crisis in Rakhine state and a sense that the outside word, in particular the U.N. and the West, are siding with Myanmar’s mortal enemies.

    While world opinion is focused on the humanitarian tragedy along the border with Bangladesh and allegations of horrific human rights abuses mainly against the minority Rohingya, the view inside the country is not only different but diametrically opposite.

    In Myanmar the overwhelming focus among not only by the government but also the general public has been on the threat from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and fears of Islamic extremism. Since ARSA’s attacks on Aug. 25, Myanmar social media has been brimming with reports of alleged ARSA atrocities against Buddhist and Hindu minorities, tens of thousands of whom have fled south away from the country’s Muslim majority areas.

    In late September, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group called for action in Myanmar, heightening fears of impending terrorist attacks in Yangon or Mandalay. Eyewitness accounts from refugees are often dismissed as fabrications, and what is seen from outside as a Rohingya human rights tragedy is portrayed within Myanmar — especially by Rakhine Buddhists — as a foreign invasion by illegal immigrants turned terrorists.

    A resurgent nationalism is taking shape but remains inchoate, uncertain of its attitudes toward the country’s many and varied minorities, relations with the West and China, as well as the very idea of Myanmar democracy.

    Forsaken Rakhine

    The northern part of Rakhine is one of the least hospitable places on the planet — an earthquake zone, prone to devastating cyclones, and with up to nearly a meter of torrential rain a month during the monsoon season. It was here in February 1944 that Indians, Gurkhas, Englishmen and West Africans fought the Japanese in the Battle of the Admin Box. It has also long been a civilizational divide. Burmese chronicles relate ancient encounters in the region between humans and bilus, or ogres. For ancient Indians, the lands beyond the Meghna river in Bangladesh were a Pandava barjita desh, a land of utter barbarism, a place no self-respecting Hindu would go.

    It was here too in 1824, after a different insurgency and refugee crisis, that the British East India Company invaded the kingdom of Burma. In Myanmar, the region is still known as the anouk-taga, the “western gate.”

    The early history of Rakhine, also known as Arakan, is little understood, but by the 1400s it was a spirited little kingdom that stretched from present-day Chittagong to the Andaman Sea. The kings spoke Rakhine, a variant of Burmese, and were Buddhists who built temples of singular beauty. But they were cosmopolitans too, some taking both Bengali-Muslim and Burmese Pali titles, welcoming Dutch traders and integrating Afghan archers and renegade Japanese samurai into their bodyguard. Bengali slaves, captured together with Portuguese pirates, were brought to populate today’s borderlands.

    The Burmese coming from the Irrawaddy valley destroyed this kingdom in 1785. Then came the British, who in the interests of ever more revenue encouraged the immigration of hundreds of thousands of what one colonial officer termed the “frugal and hard-working Bengali Muslims from Chittagong.” Burmese settlers arrived from the other direction and by 1910 the Rakhine were a minority in their own land.

    Burmese nationalism was born around the same time as what we might call today an anti-globalization and anti-immigration movement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Bengali Muslims were migrating overland into Rakhine, millions of others from the Indian subcontinent were arriving by sea. The colonial economy grew by leaps and bounds, but with the Burmese near the bottom of the new social pyramid.

    Rakhine nationalism was akin to Burmese nationalism. There were ties to Theravada Buddhism and a dread of being overwhelmed both by modernity and by outsiders. When the Japanese invaded in 1942 and civil administration broke down, thousands were butchered in Buddhist-Muslim ethnic violence, with the Japanese arming the Buddhist Rakhine and the British arming the Muslims (as part of their “V Force” reconnaissance and guerrilla operation).

    After the war, leaders of local Muslim communities (who speak a dialect of Bengali) toyed with the idea of northern Rakhine joining Pakistan and demanded their own “homeland” within Burma. The “mujahideen” and other local insurgencies waxed and waned over the following decades. In 1978 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees fled to Bangladesh in the wake of army crackdowns. By the 1990s Rakhine had become one of the poorest and most isolated parts of a very poor and isolated country.

    A question of ethnic identity

    Burmese nationalists, like the British ethnographers before them, take an essentialist view of ethnicity (like nearly all foreign commentators today, unfortunately) and divide the country into “indigenous” and “alien” races. A central tenet of Burmese nationalism is that the country belongs to people officially recognized as indigenous (taing-yin-tha), with everyone else a “guest.” The Shan and the Kachin, for example, are seen as indigenous. So too are the Kokang, descendants of Chinese freebooters who fled the Manchu invasions of the 17th century; and the Muslim Kamans, whose Afghan ancestors arrived around the same time in the train of the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, an erstwhile governor of Bengal. They were regarded as indigenous because “their people” came prior to British rule. Those who arrived after — Tamil Christians, Nepali Hindus, Yunnanese Muslims, and many others — are welcome to stay, say the nationalists, but their cultures will never be accepted in the same way.

    It is not really an issue of citizenship. Under the current 1982 citizenship law, immigrants and their children may only be “naturalized” or recognized as “associate” citizens, with restricted political rights. But by the third generation, people of any ethnic background, for example the grandchildren of early 20th century Bengali Muslim migrants, are allowed the privileges of full citizenship.

    It is more an issue of perceived history and discrimination. Today, virtually all Burmese believe that Bangladesh (and East Pakistan before) has been the source of mammoth illegal immigration. They blame the corruption of border officials and the greed of businessmen in search of cheap labor. They say many in northern Rakhine are recent illegal migrants. They accept that many may also be descendants of British-era Bengali immigrants and so qualified for citizenship, but oppose allowing them to identify themselves as “Rohingya.”

    The very word “Rohingya” is anathema in Myanmar because it is seen as a claim to be officially recognized as an indigenous people, a taing-yin-tha. The presence of distinguished Muslims, like the 17th century poet Shah Aloal or eunuch and war minister Ashraf Khan, at the court of the old Rakhine kingdom of Mrauk U in cannot be disputed. It is also clear that Rakhine had a significant population of Bengali Muslims, captured as slaves, long before the British arrived on the scene. What is not clear is who is actually descended from whom. The British had a mix of terms for varied Muslim peoples in this area: Arakanese Mohamedans, Chittagonians, Zerabadis, Kamans, Bengali Muslims.

    In the 1950s, local Muslim politicians crafted the ethnonym “Rohingya” as a new overarching and indigenous identity for all but the Kaman Muslims, and by the end of the last decade, Rohingya had become the preferred way for Muslims in northern Rakhine, at least, to identify themselves. It is this very claim to be taing-yin-tha that is rejected ferociously by Burmese.

    Final opportunity

    Five years ago, around the time U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at Yangon University about the importance of seeing Myanmar’s diversity as a strength, there was a hope that the country’s incipient transition would be infused with liberal views and that efforts toward peace, free markets and democracy would all go hand in hand. What was conveniently overlooked was the resurgent strength of ethnic based Burmese nationalism, its century-old suspicions of capitalism and the outside world, the mental scars from decades of war, isolation and Western sanctions, and the very nature of state institutions that had not evolved to serve the people.

    There was a vacuum of ideas waiting to be filled. In 2012, communal violence erupted in Rakhine, leaving hundreds of both Buddhists and Muslims dead and over 100,000 displaced. Images of Buddhist-Muslim violence merged online with images of Islamic terrorism around the world. Tens of thousands of Muslims in Rakhine were left in camps or encouraged to flee in boats. Then came ARSA and the present tragedy.

    The U.N. Security Council will continue to meet on Myanmar over the coming weeks. The council is right to focus on ending the violence in Rakhine and mobilizing assistance for urgent humanitarian needs. It is also important to recognize that Myanmar is at a tipping point. Myanmar can still be a liberal democracy and a peaceful and prosperous crossroads at the heart of Asia. But there is an alternative scenario too, one where neo-nationalism takes a clear illiberal and xenophobic turn; inter-communal tensions, not only in Rakhine, rise and spill over into violence; the peace process descends into disarray amid an escalation of fighting along the other, Chinese border; the economy fails to offer anything resembling a better life; and the attractions of democratic change are increasingly in doubt.

    Now more than ever, the country’s friends need to understand local history, engage local sentiment, help the Burmese move away from an essentialist view of ethnicity, and appreciate the complexities of Myanmar’s big picture.

  5. The Burmese Muslims of central Myanmar: No beards, no kurtas
    https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/the-burmese-muslims-of-central-myanmar-no-beards-no-kurtas

    In the first in a two-part series, Frontier’s senior correspondent Mratt Kyaw Thu journeys across central Myanmar to study the history and legacy of the country’s long and complex relationship with Islam – and meet the many Muslims who are eschewing conservative strains of the religion.

    AN ELDERLY man in a faded longyi and a casual shirt offered a friendly “hello” through betel-stained teeth as I approached the mosque in the former royal capital of Amarapura, on the southern outskirts of Mandalay.

    He introduced himself as U Nyi Hla, 71, and then took a few minutes to recall his Muslim name. “I hardly remember my religion name, but it’s … uh … it’s Abdul,” he said with a smile.

    Nyi Hla, who does not wear a beard, has been the imam – the man who leads prayer services – at the Kalapyo (Young Muslims) Mosque for 12 years.

    The mosque is more than 200 years old and was built soon after Konbaung dynasty monarch King Bodawpaya established Amarapura as the royal capital in 1783.

    Bodawpaya was the first Burmese king to officially recognise his Muslim subjects by royal decree, wrote Ba Shin in The Coming of Islam to Burma down to 1700 A.D., published by the Burma Historical Commission in 1963.

    The Kalapyo Mosque, on the Mandalay-Amarapura Road, is one of about 40 that were built on Bodawpaya’s orders for the young Muslim soldiers who served in his Royal Defence Army.

    In my years working as a journalist I’ve entered countless mosques throughout Myanmar; as a non-Muslim, I’m always careful about how I act, in order not to inadvertently cause offence.

    But when I entered the Kalapyo Mosque, I felt instantly at ease. Everything was familiar; in fact, with no sign to identify it as a mosque, it could easily be mistaken for a monastery.

    Traces of Islam

    I had travelled to Mandalay in an effort to learn more about Myanmar’s Muslim community: its past, present and future. The standard tropes – a beleaguered minority living in fear of hard-line nationalists, according to international media; a dangerous, almost existential threat to Buddhism in the eyes of nationalists – soon melted away. What was revealed was a vibrant, inclusive, well-integrated and peaceful community.

    Amarapura was a natural place to begin my journey. As well as Kalapyo Mosque, other Muslim places of worship had been built in the former royal capital on Bodawpaya’s orders; these included the earthquake-damaged Oh Daw Mosque – its windows, entrance and sacred places decorated in the Burmese arabesque style – and the Koyandaw (Royal Bodyguards) Mosque.

    A shrine, or dargah, in Amarapura honours Abid Shah Hussaini, a learned Muslim believed to have come from Afghanistan who was appointed by Bodawpaya to adjudicate in disputes involving members of the Islamic community.

    Another tomb in the compound of Hussaini’s shrine honours U Bein, a local Muslim official who built the famous teak bridge of the same name completed in 1851 that spans the nearby Taungthaman Lake. During the reign of the ninth Konbaung monarch, King Bagan Min (1846-1852), U Bein and another prominent Muslim citizen of Amarapura, its mayor Bai Sab, were executed.

    The neglect of Amarapura’s Islamic heritage is all too clear, though. Some of this is by government diktat: Since 2007, for example, Muslims have been prohibited from rebuilding the shrine to U Bein, which is only a short distance from the bridge named in his honour that attracts tourists from around the world.

    But when Mindon shifted the capital to Mandalay, many simply moved away from the area. Nyi Hla said about 50 men attend Friday prayers at the Kalapyo Mosque because it was the only one in the area; many others are dilapidated and too old to use.

    As we walked around the mosque and talked, Nyi Hla gazed off into the distance, as if staring into the past. “There were lots of Muslim households around here when the king moved his capital to Mandalay, but later because of many causes, Muslims also moved to another places,” he said. “Everything’s changed later… yes, everything’s changed.”
    Communal ties and tensions

    Nyi Hla is a typical representative of Muslims who have lived in Myanmar for generations and have integrated into culture and society. The 2014 census counted 1,147,495 Muslims, or 2.3 percent of an enumerated population of 50,279,900.

    A further 1,090,000 Muslims in Rakhine State were not counted because they refused to be identified as “Bengali”; if included, Muslims would comprise 4.3 percent of the population, up only slightly on the 3.9 percent recorded by the previous census, in 1983.

    There is only one Muslim group among the 135 officially recognised ethnic nationalities. Known as the Kaman, they are thought to number around 45,000 nationally.

    The rest have adopted a variety of names. The most well known are the Rohingya, whom the government and most Myanmar insist be called Bengali, but there are many others from various parts of South Asia and the Middle East. Some have unique ethnic identities, like the Panthay, who are originally from southern China, or the Cholia, who are Tamil-speaking Muslims from Tamil Nadu in southern India. Many others though simply call themselves Myanmar, Burmese or Bamar Muslims.

    The census revealed that the biggest Muslim populations are in Yangon and Mandalay regions and Mon State. There are 345,612 Muslims in Yangon Region (comprising 4.7 percent of the population), 187,785 in Mandalay Region (three percent) and 119,086 in Mon State (5.8 percent).

    Communal relations in Myanmar have been strained since 2012, when the violence that engulfed Rakhine State was followed by bloodshed elsewhere, including rioting at Meiktila in 2013 in which scores were slaughtered, including 30 students at a Muslim boarding school.

    The violence has coincided with a rise in Buddhist nationalism that has destroyed previously harmonious relationships between friends, neighbours and entire communities.

    It has become rare to see a Buddhist in a Muslim shop, or vice versa, in Yangon and in large towns in central Myanmar, such as Meiktila.

    The exception is Mandalay and its surrounds, where community relations are warmer and there has historically been none of the tensions that sparked violence in Yangon, such as the deadly rioting in 1930 involving Burman dockworkers and Indian labourers.

    Although Mandalay was hit by communal conflict in July 2014, leaving two people dead, many argue that the incident in fact highlighted the social cohesion in the city. Community groups, religious leaders and residents mobilised to calm tensions and combat what they said were attempts by outsiders to foment conflict following inflammatory social media posts by U Wirathu. The posts accused Muslim teashop owners of raping a Buddhist women – an allegation later shown to be false.

    “The scripted sequence that played out in Mandalay was similar to the pattern of previous outbreaks of violence, but with one crucial and telling difference – local people refused join with the rioters,” US-based organisation Justice Trust wrote in a March 2015 report on the July 1-2 violence.

    The rioters visited two monasteries after midnight in order to recruit monks to their cause but were rebuffed by senior abbots, the report said. “Meanwhile, activists from a local multi-faith alliance called the Mandalay Peace Committee and monks from the All Burma Monks Union responded quickly, alerting their networks and establishing a presence on the streets, thereby helping to limit the scope of damage.”

    In a radio address on July 7, 2014, President U Thein Sein expressed appreciation to Mandalay residents for preventing the spread of violence in their city despite the efforts of those seeking to instigate conflict. He described Mandalay as “a model society” where people of all faiths have lived alongside each other for many decades “keeping in mind they all are Mandalay residents”. Because of the riot, “Mandalay people could show their unity and mutual trust among communities,” he said.

    One of those who mobilised to keep the peace in July 2014 was Ko Than Swe, a Muslim businessman who was born in the city. He worked with Buddhist monks and other religious and community leaders to keep people calm.

    He said this was made easier by the fact that people of different faiths lived and worked alongside each other in Mandalay; unlike Yangon, there is no ward or township in urban Mandalay where one religious community is totally dominant.

    “When we were growing up, we spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries – we played in the monasteries and are familiar with Buddhism, as are many other Muslims in Mandalay,” he said.

    The history of tolerance and assimilation in Mandalay may be a legacy of inclusive Konbaung dynasty kings.

    The popular, modernising King Mindon, who established Mandalay as Burma’s last royal capital in 1857, permitted a mosque to be built inside the palace walls and funded a guesthouse in Mecca for Muslims performing the Hajj.

    Many of the mosques and Chinese and Hindu temples in Mandalay were built during Mindon’s reign from 1853 to 1878.

    They include the June Mosque on 27th Street built by U Bo, one of two Muslims who had supported the rebellion led by Mindon and his brother, Prince Kanaung, that overthrew Bagan Min and installed Mindon as king. The other Muslim, U Yuet, became the head chef in Mindon’s palace.

    U Hla Win, 78, is descended from the Kalapyo soldiers who served royalty; his great-grandfather on his mother’s side served as a major with an artillery unit. Hla Win, who worked part time as a township judge during the Ne Win dictatorship, is a vegetarian who does not have a Muslim name and is moderate in his beliefs.

    “I believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammed and I follow the rules and doctrines of the Quran but I don’t like what some Muslims are doing nowadays,” he told me.
    ‘Our lord is powerful’

    There are wide variations in the beliefs of Muslims, as there are among Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism prevails in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka, with Mahayana Buddhism dominant in northern and eastern Asia, and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet.

    Although the Quran prohibits the worship of images of people or other living beings, moderate Muslims in Myanmar and throughout the world throng dargah to offer prayers.

    The Abid Shah Hussaini Dargah in Amarapura and the Lushah Dargah, at Tabetswe in Sintgaing Township, about 30 kilometres from downtown Mandalay, are popular pilgrimage sites for devout Muslims in central Myanmar.

    “Many people come here to pray, even Buddhists and Christians, as our lord is powerful,” said U Aye Ko, 51, chairman of the Lushah Dargah trustees, whose Islamic name is Mohamed Abishair.

    When I visited in March, Buddhist children were playing in the dargah’s shaded compound, which covers about three acres. In front of the shrine a woman was praying; I was surprised to see that she did not wear any covering on her face or hair.

    Aye Ko, the trustee, was unable to provide precise information about the origins of the dargah, but said it was named after a Muslim missionary, Lushah, from Central Asia from the early or mid 19th century. Visitors believe if they pray at the dargah their wish will be fulfilled.

    Aye Ko and most other Burmese Muslim elders in Tabetswe dress as Burmese. They wear neither beards nor the long, collar-less shirts known as kurta that are traditionally worn by Muslim men in South Asia. The archway at the entrance of the Lushah Dargah, one of the biggest Muslim buildings I’ve encountered in my trips to central Myanmar, is decorated with Burmese-style sculptures.

    Tabetswe has 1,000 Buddhist and Muslim households and the two communities coexist harmoniously. When I visited the village early one evening, the call to prayer at the mosque mingled with the sound of a recorded monk’s sermon being played at a monastery.

    “Religion is just religion here,” said Aye Ko. “Buddhist children use the land [in the mosque] as a playground and Muslims go the monastery when there is an event to give donations.

    “When there has been [communal] violence elsewhere in the country it has never affected our village and it will never happen to us.”
    ‘We are Burmese Muslims’

    With a few exceptions, the Burmese Muslims in central Myanmar have been able to live peacefully with their neighbours because they have embraced Burmese culture. But elders worry about the influence of more conservative strains of the religion from the Subcontinent and the Middle East. The result has been a growing embrace of orthodox Islam and they suspect this has also been a factor in recent communal conflict, alongside the rise of Buddhist nationalism.

    “In Yangon and some other heavily Muslim townships, they’ve been changing,” said Muslim author and teacher U Aung Aung Than. A Mandalay resident, he said that Muslim communities in most parts of central Myanmar remain well integrated. “We upper Myanmar Muslims are Burmese Muslims. We love Burmese culture and at the same time we pray to Allah and follow the doctrines of the Quran.”

    During three weeks in central Myanmar, I met dozens of people who proudly introduced themselves as “Burmese Muslims”. Hla Win, the retired judge, said, “I told my grandsons that religion is just a description; humans are equal whether they are Muslims or Buddhists. But I’m worried that Muslim attitudes are changing because of outside interference.”

    My journey through central Myanmar journey was winding down, but one of my last interviews was the most startling.

    I travelled to the Taung Balu Mosque in Mandalay to interview the imam, U Toe Moe Aung. Everyone in the mosque referred to him by this name; he only revealed later, at my questioning, that his Muslim name is Nayzwe Mudding.

    The mosque is unusual in Mandalay because men and women do not pray together; instead, a separate prayer room is provided for women.

    Toe Moe Aung was wearing a traditional Rakhine longyi, which Burmese men often don to mark special occasions. When I asked about his attire, he responded simply: “Our holy Quran doesn’t specify exactly what to wear. It only says that it should be ‘suitable and flexible with your place’.”

    It is one teaching that many Muslims in central Myanmar have clearly taken to heart.

    • The rise of the Tablighi Jamaat movement
      https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/the-rise-of-the-tablighi-jamaat-movement

      In the final instalment of a two-part series, Frontier’s senior correspondent Mratt Kyaw Thu charts the rise of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and the deep divisions its growing popularity has created within the Muslim community.
      THE YOMA THITSAR minibus pulls into the terminal at Taungok, in southern Rakhine State. The driver has been warned several times not to enter the town, but by the time he notices the angry crowd that has gathered at the station, it’s too late. They storm onto the bus, dragging passengers off the vehicle. Ten people are killed, either stabbed or beaten to death.

      Many will recognise this as one of the key events of communal violence that erupted in Rakhine State in June 2012. The killings in Taungok are often considered a retributive act; a week earlier, three Muslim men had been arrested for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in nearby Ramree Township.

      What is less known though is that those killed were reported to be Tablighis: followers of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic movement known for its missionary work that has variously been described as “fundamentalist”, “conservative” or “revivalist”.

      The Rakhine Inquiry Commission’s final report, released in July 2013, said the group had been returning from Rathedaung Township in northern Rakhine State, where they had “exhorted Bengalis to build a mosque” and promised to provide the necessary funds. The commission added that “many Rakhine became extremely resentful of this Tablighi group” and the episode “increased the intensity of Rakhine patriotic sentiment and fuelled their anger”.

      Frontier was unable to confirm independently that those killed on June 3, 2012, were Tablighis, and it is unclear what evidence the Rakhine Inquiry Commission based its report on.

      But the incident reveals an element of Myanmar’s communal tensions that has to date received little attention: the growing orthodoxy of sections of Myanmar’s Muslim community, driven by the adherence to the principles of a movement known as Tablighi Jamaat.

      The rise of Tablighi Jamaat in recent decades has reinforced divisions between Buddhists and Muslims, but also created new ideological fault-lines within the Muslim community.

      To date the debates over Islamic practice in Myanmar have taken place mostly in private forums like mosques and hidden social media groups. In one of the few articles on the topic, U Tin Win Akbar, the president of the Federation of Workers’ Union of the Burmese Citizens in Japan, wrote in February 2014 that Muslims in Myanmar are “slowly and steadily becoming more conservative and rigid in their religious practice”.

      “The new style religious leaders also imposed many kinds of religious pronouncements that made it difficult for Burmese Muslims to maintain their harmonious social relations with Burmese Buddhists,” he wrote on Asia Peacebuilding Initiatives, a project set up by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

      But Tablighi leaders say their movement is peaceful and Muslims join of their own choice. Prominent Tablighi U Kyaw Nyein said the movement has many followers in Myanmar and its activities were not against the law.

      “There is no reason to oppose [Tablighi Jamaat],” said Kyaw Nyein, who is a legal adviser to Jamiat Ulama-al Islam, one of the country’s leading Muslim bodies. “And we don’t insist that it’s ‘fully true’ and we never criticise any other religious sects.”
      The lifestyle of the prophet

      A sub-sect of the Islamic revivalist movement known as Deobandi, Tablighi Jamaat was founded in northwest India in 1926 by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi and stresses individual faith, urging Muslims to embrace the lifestyle of the prophet Muhammad. Today it is estimated to have anywhere from 12 million to 80 million followers across 150 countries, according to the Pew Research Center. The movement is a network rather than an organisation, with no real hierarchical structure, and is peaceful and strictly apolitical.

      Tablighi Jamaat has six pillars, including kalmia (belief in Allah), salah (daily prayers) and dawah (preaching the message of Allah). Male followers grow beards and wear kurtas – long, white robes for which Tablighis are easily identifiable – while women cover themselves in public and typically devote themselves to family and religious life.

      The focus on dawah has prompted some to describe Tablighi as “Muslim Jehova’s Witnesses”. Typically, adherents will go on a 40-day mission, or chillah, during which they preach to other Muslims, encouraging them to attend prayers at their mosque and listen to sermons. They do not seek to convert non-Muslims.

      “It’s essentially a movement for the poor. It’s a very attractive identity offer for ordinary Muslims – the strength is the openness and flexibility,” Mr Alexander Horstmann, an associate professor in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the School of Humanities at Estonia’s Tallinn University, told Frontier.

      “It’s not complicated, not bureaucratic, it’s very flexible. People are very friendly with each other, calling each other brothers and sisters, so there’s a lot of solidarity,” said Horstmann, who has taught at Mandalay University and interviewed many Muslims in Myanmar for his research.

      Horstmann said that its popularity in Myanmar has in partly been built on disaffection with traditional hierarchies and leaders, and it offers Tablighis opportunities that would otherwise not be open to them.

      “There’s a very clear class issue here, and also one of education,” said Horstmann. “Established Muslim elites have strong hierarchies and they have their own madrassas. They are not so open for the ordinary Muslims.

      “So the Tablighi have their own welfare and education systems, and they have very strong social support structures.”
      The rise of Tablighi Jamaat

      Tablighi Jamaat had surfaced in Myanmar by 1960, when several well-educated Muslims initiated a campaign in an attempt to spread its teachings around the country. (Frontier approached one of the four Tablighi initiators for an interview but he declined to comment.)

      This campaign was brief; the movement was forced underground by General Ne Win’s 1962 coup. But far from disappearing, during this period Tablighi followers became influential on some of the main Muslim organisations in Myanmar, including Jamiat Ulama-al Islam and the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, according to French scholar Mr François Robinne from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

      Local Muslims also point to the end of socialist autarky after 1988 and the gradual opening of the country by the military regime as a pivotal moment in the growth of the movement. Missionaries, including those from abroad, were able to visit and travel relatively freely, while Muslims from Myanmar travelled in the other direction.

      In ever-larger numbers, Muslims began travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage and to the Tablighi headquarters near New Delhi. The return of some Myanmar Muslims from India in around 2000 has also been cited as an important development.

      “People who did the Hajj saw the dressing style in Mecca and brought it back to Myanmar – it was really new for Muslims here,” said Ko Than Swe, a Muslim businessman from Mandalay. “Soon after, many shops selling Indian and Arab-style clothing opened here.”

      But these new ideas and influences were arriving at a time when the military regime was creating a national identity that largely excluded Muslims. For people in search of meaning, identity and acceptance, Tablighi has proven an attractive proposition.

      Tablighi Jamaat’s influence is most noticeable in Yangon. The country’s largest city and gateway to the outside world, it’s also traditionally been much more influenced by South Asian Islamic ideology. But Tablighi Jamaat is also widespread in other communities around the country. When Frontier visited the Sunni Jamaat Mosque, in Yangon’s Thingangyun Township last month, a group of Burmese Muslims from Kyaukse Township in Mandalay Region were visiting to meet Tablighi followers in Yangon.

      It’s not clear how many active Tablighis there are in Myanmar; they are also difficult to count because it can be a temporary identity and adherents may be members of multiple religious groupings. Some estimate that up to half of the country’s Muslim population may be affiliated with Tablighi Jamaat in some way.

      Horstmann said experienced Tablighi missionaries are constantly on the move, travelling around the countryside and abroad. They form small bands of followers, and work to establish control over mosques and conduct outreach in communities.

      “Tablighi Jamaat [activists] are very diligent. They make sure they contact every [Muslim] restaurant, every shop. They talk to these people and so the question is how those people respond,” he said. “It’s a sort of mouth-to-mouth propaganda. This kind of flexibility, mobility makes them hugely influential in this minority context … They offer social capital and religious respect, as well as opportunities for networking and access to international Muslim networks.”
      ‘These differences don’t make us opponents’

      Prior to this year’s Thingyan water festival, some people discovered their Facebook Newsfeed contained messages urging Muslims to avoid the celebrations. A few posts seen by Frontier even warned Muslims against eating mont lone ye paw, a traditional snack, saying that it was the equivalent of eating pork.

      Ko Aung Zaw Myint was one of those who helped spread the message about avoiding Thingyan. Also known as Ibrahim, he said he was simply opposed to the hedonism that is often associated with Thingyan – a sentiment that many Buddhists also share.

      “During my early adulthood, I enjoyed Thingyan very much. But it has changed – there’s too much alcohol and rude conversations. People lost their mind when they were drunk and did not have a good attitude. So I avoid [participating] in Thingyan and I urge other people to do so.”

      Ibrahim became a Tablighi in 2000, when he was in his first year of university. He attends the Sunni Jamaat mosque and is active in the Tablighi movement and regularly travels on missionary work.

      Because Tablighi Jamaat is not an organisation, Ibrahim has no official position in the movement. But it was clear from the way that other Muslims at the mosque interacted with him that he was a figure of some authority.

      Asked how he became a Tablighi, he describes it as a religious conversion, even a “miracle”. A friend persuaded him to go on a chillah with other Tablighis and while they were eating together in a mosque, he noticed he was eating with his left hand and everyone else was using their right. “It was like a light in my head went off,” he said. “I realised that I needed to change so I could be one of them. All Muslims have to be the same, to be united.”

      He said the centre of the Tablighi movement is Tachanbe Mosque on Upper Pansodan Road in Yangon. “Most Tablighi Muslims go there every Tuesday and Thursday. Senior Tablighi people give some rules and regulations, instructions. The biggest day is Thursday; the meeting and discussion normally takes around three hours.”

      When Tablighi missionaries visit a mosque, they invite other Muslims to come and discuss Tablighi Jamaat. “Some Indian Tablighi Muslims often come here to give sermons,” Ibrahim said.

      Asked to describe the movement, he said it encourages followers of Islam to be “true Muslims”, both on the outside through their appearance and the “inside” through their adherence to Islamic teaching. “As much as they can, a Tablighi must be like the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.

      He downplayed concerns about Tablighis creating divisions or making themselves targets due to their appearance, saying that not all Tablighis wore kurtas or grew beards.

      “For women, the change is more than men but … I don’t think that [appearance] is a big issue. Yes, some people say we are different with others but I don’t think that these differences make us opponents or should be seen as trying to provoke each other.

      “For the Muslims who are against Tablighi, we have to take time to correct them. Although we’ve been facing criticism, we need persistence.”

      Frontier attempted to interview several other Tablighis but many declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

      In Mandalay, several Tablighi followers explained the movement’s principles to Frontier off the record. The movement is much less prominent in the city – it’s rare to see Tablighis in public – and those interviewed dressed like Burmese Muslims, with just a short beard and slightly longer shirt rather than the full beard and kurta. Asked about the movement, they said simply that “Tabligh is fine here”.

      The Islamic Religious Affairs Council also declined to comment for this article. Kyaw Nyein said that Ulama-al Islam never sought to instruct Muslims which form of Islam to follow.

      “You just practise what you believe in. We never have a low opinion upon each other [because of their beliefs]. Our religious sect Ulama-al Islam abstains from any speech or writing that might offend the beliefs of others or create misunderstanding among believers and we urge all to abstain from such acts,” he said.

      Kyaw Nyein was disdainful though of those Muslims who criticise Tablighi Jamaat. “Most of the Muslim scholars – the real, competent scholars – don’t talk about it, but a group of those who get nowhere enjoy talking nonsense.”
      ‘People think they are foreigners’

      The rise of Tablighi Jamaat has created new fault-lines within Myanmar’s Muslim community, which has traditionally been divided – in culture, language and faith – between those of Indian descent and those who identify as ethnically Burmese or Bamar.

      In an echo of the way that Buddhists often view Islam, some Burmese Muslims feel that their beliefs and way of life are under threat because of the proselytising of the Tablighi Jamaat movement, which they say has resulted in many Burmese Muslims adopting Tablighi as their identity.

      Writing in the 2015 book Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar, Robinne described the Tablighi Jamaat’s missionary work as “Islamising the Muslims of the country by ‘de-Burmanising’ them”.

      But Muslim author and teacher U Aung Aung Than said Tablighi Jamaat’s growth was also fuelling tensions with non-Muslims, who viewed their conservative appearance as “very noticeable and strange”. It may even be contributing to widely held perceptions – unsubstantiated by the 2014 census – that the Muslim community is growing rapidly, or that illegal immigrants are “overrunning” the country.

      When Frontier recently interviewed Burmese Muslim leaders in Mandalay, they spoke of “strange” Muslims – Tablighis – who had recently arrived in the city and settled in a particular ward.

      “We can’t deny this problem. It’s happening. People [non-Muslims] think that they [Tablighis] are foreigners,” said Aung Aung Than.

      He suggested that Tablighis should seek to combine the movement’s ideology with Burmese culture and traditions, to form a hybrid “Burmanised Tablighi”.

      Some Muslims are even mobilising against Tablighi Jamaat, using social media to advocate a more moderate form of Islam and recalling a time when the Buddhist and Muslim communities were said to be more closely integrated.

      When communal violence erupted in 2012 and stoked tensions between the religions, Ko Thet Ko Ko, 36, joined with like-minded Muslims to create a group called Yway Latyar. The group advocates maintaining Burmese culture and customs alongside the practise of Islam, and Thet Ko Ko said its aim is to promote co-existence and harmony with other ethnic and religious groups.

      The name means “the chosen people”, and was used by a group of Muslim soldiers who served the Burmese kings since the Nyaung Yan period, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

      “Our message is simple: that Myanmar Muslims should not stay differently and be isolated from others,” Thet Ko Ko told Frontier.

      He likened some elements of Tabligh Jamaat to the conservative Buddhist 969 movement, which rose to prominence in 2012 with hardline nationalists like U Wirathu as its unofficial leaders.

      “They [Tablighis] are spreading messages like, ‘Do not buy commodities and food at non-Muslims shops’, and ‘Do not wear the same clothes as [non-Muslims]’,” Thet Ko Ko said.

      Despite the efforts of his group and others, Thet Ko Ko said he believed Tablighi Jamaat was winning this contest of ideas, particularly in rural areas.

      “Because of Tablighi preaching, so many Muslims in remote villages and areas are starting to think that they need to be different with others,” he said.

      “As the Tablighi missionaries are very strong, well-organised and well-funded by wealthy Muslim people, it’s hard to promote Myanmar traditions in the Muslim community. Because religion is a sensitive issue, we’ve also been facing lots of criticism. But we’ll try as much as we can to stay in harmony.”

      Ko Kyaw Zin Lat, a young Muslim lawyer and former Tablighi, said he was concerned that in the context of rising Buddhist nationalism the movement’s activities could “provoke” conflict.

      He suggested that leaders set clearer guidelines on Tablighi activities, particularly missionary work. In Sri Lanka, he said, Tablighis are given training before they go on a chillah, but that this does not seem to be the case in Myanmar.

      He said he was pressured by others at his mosque to become a Tablighi. Although he accepted the six pillars, he left the movement because he was uncomfortable wearing a kurta in public.

      “Some [Tablighi] leaders don’t restrict [their followers] tightly, but some use force [to wear a kurta],” he said.
      Military green light

      That Tablighi Jamaat was able to thrive under military rule is curious. Foreign missionaries came and went relatively freely, and by the mid to late 2000s, Tablighis were holding large public preaching ceremonies in Yangon with several thousand participants.

      This has fed some conspiracy theories that the military encouraged the growth of the movement in order to fan the flames of communal tension.

      Thet Ko Ko from Yway Latyar said that when the military government allowed Tablighi events, “we young Muslims were not allowed to organise some interfaith discussions”.

      Kyaw Zin Lat said Tablighi leaders reported their activities regularly to the Department of Religious Affairs, but he still found it hard to understand why the military regime allowed Tablighi to conduct missionary work openly.

      “This was a time when the military regime made gatherings of five or more people illegal,” he said. “Even Buddhists monks couldn’t give a public sermon, but those Tablighis were allowed to gather in large numbers. I just wonder why the generals, who hate Muslims, didn’t stop their activities.”

      But Horstmann said a more likely scenario was that the military understood the movement was peaceful, and there was a consensus that Tablighis could conduct their missionary works within certain boundaries.

      “I think the military understood that there’s not really a threat coming from the Tablighi,” he said. “They understand that it’s a peaceful movement and it’s actually very different to the radicalisation taking place elsewhere [around the world].”

      Ibrahim said that several government informants attended his mosque to listen to the sermons and report back to their superiors.

      “When the Tablighi programs ‘opened’, many Muslims would come to join us. The intelligence forces came into the mosque and listened to what our leaders said. We all know that, but later they realised that we are not really concerned with politics.”

      Kyaw Nyein from Ulama-al Islam gave a similar explanation. He said some groups had tried to stop the Tablighi Jamaat activities during the socialist era, but later Tablighi leaders explained their beliefs and the government approved their activities.
      Beginning the discussion

      Although peaceful and non-political, Tablighi Jamaat’s success at encouraging Muslims to embrace a fundamentalist version of Islam, particularly in their appearance, has reinforced divisions between Buddhists and Muslims at a time when many Buddhists are anxious about the future of their race and religion.

      But Tablighi Jamaat does not explain the discrimination against Muslims or the attacks that have taken place since 2012, much less justify them. Muslims who follow Tablighi Jamaat are simply exercising their legal rights, and they are doing so peacefully and without disturbing others.

      It’s important to note that Tablighi Jamaat is not new. If it has now become a source of communal tension, it is because political and social dynamics in Myanmar have shifted, particularly since the transition began in 2011.

      Horstmann said he believed Tablighi Jamaat had been influential since the early 1990s “at the latest”. “What is new are the anxieties from Buddhists, they are really big, and they have been amplified by the constant hate speech by some Buddhist monks.”

      While dialogue and understanding are needed to overcome these tensions, beginning the conversation is difficult. Kyaw Zin Lat said because the Muslim community feels under threat, a culture has developed where dissent or disagreement is seen as dangerous – much as it was in the pro-democracy movement under military rule.

      As a result, it is hard for discussions around identity and belief to take place openly between Muslims, let alone with other religious groups.

      “If some people criticise some wrong doings [that Muslims are doing], the Muslims leaders blame them. They say, ‘Don’t you understand? We have to be united in this situation’,” Kyaw Zin Lat said. “This is a big problem in the community, because it creates a society where people just believe whatever the leader says.”

      Tablighi Jamaat raises important questions about Myanmar’s past, present and future. The conversation, though, is yet to begin.
      Additional reporting by Thomas Kean.

  6. masud karim permalink

    Indian Troops Seal Off India-Myanmar Border
    https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/indian-troops-seal-off-india-myanmar-border.html

    At least two infantry companies from the Indian army have been deployed in Mizoram, a state located at the border with Myanmar’s Paletwa Township in southern Chin State as fighting intensifies in the area between the Myanmar Military and the Arakan Army (AA).

    The Assam Tribune reported on Sunday that the troops are stationed in Mizoram’s southwestern Lawngtlai District. The troops are deployed with the intention of preventing AA fighters from entering Indian territory and to assist the villagers displaced from the conflict zones. It said AA rebels and government troops have been fighting along the Kaladan River in Myanmar’s Paletwa Township since earlier this month.

    The report says troops began arriving at the border on Saturday.

    AA spokesperson U Khine Thukha confirmed to The Irrawaddy on Monday that they have learned the Indian military recently stationed more than 500 soldiers along the border between the Mizoram villages of Parva and Lungpuk, covering a distance of at least 22 kilometers.

    U Khine Thukha remarked that this is the first time in recent years that such heavy military presence has been seen at the border. There are widely-held suspicions that the Indian army may be trying to work in cooperation with the Myanmar military against AA rebels.

    “My message to the Indian government is that collaborating with ICC-wanted war criminals (Myanmar’s military) is totally inappropriate. India should not cooperate with the ICC criminals,” said U Khine Thukha, referring to accusations against the Myanmar military of committing war crimes against the Rohingya in Rakhine State in late 2017.

    Over the weekend, unconfirmed claims that high-ranking Burmese military officers secretly met their Indian army counterparts were widely spread across social media. However, The Irrawaddy’s calls to Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the Military’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief, went unanswered on Monday.

    Reports from Mizoram said that about 1,750 people from Chin State’s Paletwa Township sought refuge in 2017 as a result of Myanmar military-led operations against the AA. As of September 2018, some 200 refugees were still sheltering in Mizoram, refusing to go return to their villages in Myanmar out of fear of the return of unpredictable armed clashes in the region.

    Recent clashes between the AA and government troops forced a number of residents to flee from Paletwa across the border to Mizoram on Saturday, though the number of displaced has not been confirmed.

    India’s reinforcements along the Myanmar-India border come amid what many see as strengthening ties between the Myanmar and Indian militaries. In late January, Myanmar’s military seized the headquarters of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing Region without resistance from the Naga rebels.

    A military announcement last week accused the NSCN-K of violating the bilateral ceasefire agreement by sheltering members of Indian militant groups from Assam and Manipur which are fighting against Indian government troops. It claimed they arrested six NSCN-K members and two Kathae rebels. The NSCN-K signed a regional-level ceasefire agreement with the military in 2012 and since then, no major armed clashes with government troops have occurred in the region. The leaders of NSCN-K denied the military’s allegations.

    On Monday afternoon, Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) issued a letter of condolence to the family members of those in the Indian army who were killed in Thursday’s suicide bomb attack in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

    The AA announced on its official website on Sunday that they had fought with military troops in Rathedaung Township’s Yae Soe Chaung Village on Feb. 14, killing 10 government troops. They also announced that they had carried out a mine attack on a highway express coach carrying government soldiers in Ponnagyun Township on Feb. 17, leaving a number of troops wounded and seeking medical treatment in Sittwe. The AA denounced the military’s attempt at disguising its troops as civilians by transporting them in private transport.

    Locals relief groups have estimated that the armed violence in northern Rakhine State has displaced more than 6,000 residents while aid shipments from international relief agencies are being blocked by army officers on the ground, with the exception of those from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

    As of this week, about 40 locals are in detention in the area on accusations of having ties with the AA, which have been declared an unlawful association.

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