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Monday, August 06, 2012

Easy Targets: The Persecution of Muslims in Burma

Report Cover Photo:  Muslim villagers from Dooplaya District of Karen State who fled to Thailand after being systematically forced from their villages by SLORC troops in 1997.  [KHRG]


This report takes a look at the general persecution of Muslims in Burma through the eyes of Muslim villagers and townspeople. Emphasis is placed on the sizeable but mostly ignored Muslim population outside of Rakhine (Arakan) State. Muslims have lived in Burma for hundreds of years, although many arrived only after Burma’s annexation by Great Britain in the 19th Century. Racial and religious tensions have run high between Muslims and Burmans since independence in 1948. Successive Burmese regimes have encouraged or instigated violence against Muslims as a way of diverting the public’s attention away from economic or political concerns. The most recent outbreak of violence occurred in cities across Burma from February to October 2001. Burma’s draconian citizenship law makes it impossible for many Muslims to become citizens and receive national identity cards. Without the identity cards, Muslims have a difficult time travelling, getting an education or finding a job. Religious restrictions have also been placed on Muslims. There is a prohibition on the construction of new mosques and repairs to existing ones are limited to the interiors only. Groups of more than five Muslims have been prohibited from assembling in cities and towns where anti-Muslim riots occurred. Muslim religious leaders and groups are under surveillance by the SPDC. The situation has created a climate of fear among Muslims to such an extent that many feel they are always being watched and they must live their lives and practice their religion quietly and secretly.

The report also examines Karen relations with the Muslim population in Karen State, particularly the persecution of Muslims by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen group allied with the SPDC. The DKBA has been involved in the destruction of mosques and the forced relocation of Muslim villagers. DKBA soldiers have tried to force Muslims to worship Buddhist monks and put up Buddhist altars. Restrictions have also been placed on Muslims to force them to become vegetarian. Both the DKBA and the SPDC force Muslims in Karen State to perform forced labour for them on a regular basis.

There are small Muslim armed groups based in Rakhine State engaged in the struggle for human rights and federal democracy like the ethnicity-based resistance groups throughout Burma; they are not fundamentalist ‘jihad’ groups, nor are they part of any real or imaginary international networks like ‘Al Qaeda’. Elsewhere in the country Muslims are generally not politically active. Forming a small minority in many of the areas where they live and facing persecution both from the state and the local population, most Muslim communities are tightly knit but very low-key, focused mainly on the daily struggle to survive and support a family. Most Muslims realise they are easy targets for the regime and are too poor to get involved in politics. The September 2001 attacks in the United States have not had much of an impact in Burma apart from further travel restrictions placed on Muslims. While the SPDC has not yet tried to gain American support by labelling Burmese Muslims as ‘international terrorists’, the possibility remains that they may attempt to do so in future. The difficult conditions faced by Muslims across Burma have forced many to go to Thailand, Bangladesh or India, where they generally have no access to refugee status so they have no choice but to join the illegal migrant labour work force.

This report is based on interviews with Muslim refugees from Karen State and Muslim travellers and traders from central Burma and the Western border conducted by KHRG researchers between October 2001 and February 2002. All of the interviews quoted in the text are with Burmese Muslims with the exception of Interview #6 with “Moe Zaw Shwe”, who is a Karen Christian. There are a higher number of examples in the text from Karen State because more of the interviews were conducted with Muslims from Karen State. Some supporting information and assistance with interviews was provided by the Muslim Information Centre of Burma (MICB). While this report focuses on Muslims, readers may want to see the following KHRG reports for further information on the treatment of Muslim communities in the areas discussed in this report: “Refugees from the SLORC Occupation” (KHRG #97-07, 25/5/97), “Strengthening the Grip on Dooplaya: Developments in the SPDC Occupation of Dooplaya District” (KHRG #98-05, 10/6/98), and “Abuses and Relocations in Pa’an District” (KHRG #97-08, 1/8/97).

This report consists of several parts: this preface, an introduction, a detailed description of the situation including quotes from interviews, and an index of interviews. The full text of the interviews compiled for this report is available as a separately published annex and is available from KHRG upon approved request.

Notes on the Text

In the interviews, all names of those interviewed have been changed and some details have been omitted where necessary to protect people from retaliation. False names are shown in double quotes. The captions under the quotes in the situation report include the interviewee’s (changed) name, gender, age and village, and a reference to the interview. These numbers can be used to find the full text of the interviews. Although measures have been taken to hide the identity of people in this report, please do not pass this report in its present form to any representatives, agents or business partners of the SPDC regime. The use of the terms ‘Rakhine’, ‘Arakan’ and ‘Rohingya’ is complex due to the political and racial significance of the terms. In this report the term ‘Rohingya’ is used to refer to Muslims in Rakhine State and ‘Rakhine’ is used to refer to the Buddhist inhabitants of Rakhine State. ‘Arakanese Muslim’ will be used in this report to differentiate between Muslims whose ancestors are indigenous to Rakhine State and Muslims whose ancestors arrived in Rakhine State during the British colonial period.

View the PDF version of this report
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