Rohingya crisis and present-day Islam in Myanmar

Asia Contributor
Islam in Myanmar
Hundreds of Muslim Rohingya are suffering severe malnutrition in overcrowded camps in Myanmar s Rakhine state | Dreamstime

Often our dinner table becomes a place for debate as Mahfuz is always up for it. With his endless knowledge of trivia, debating is a cakewalk for him. Mahfuz is also gifted with his razor-sharp argumentative power. So if a debate splurge initiates on the dinner table, I try to convert it to a discussion. As discussion will give me insights on that specific topic he wants to argue about.

But, that day Mahfuz was unusually quiet. We were watching the news about Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar while dining. After watching it for a while, he said with a sigh, ‘ You know Irum, the curse of humankind is war and genocide. But, when Islam first set its foot in Myanmar, everything was not that bad.’

I kept quiet and let him continue.

Islam in Myanmar: An introduction

Islam in Myanmar now is a minority religion. According to 2008 official statistics, nearly 4.15% of the population practice Islam. In the year 652 AD, Arab Muslim merchants came to the port of Thaton and Martaban. Actually, they used Burma (present-day Myanmar) as a resting port while visiting China. That was the first time Islam got introduced in this country. After that, in the 9th century, the permanent settlement of Islam started in Irrawaddy river delta and Rakhine. Some arrived on the Arakan coast and moved to the upward of Maungdaw. The history of these settlements was documented by Arab and Persian travellers.

Present-day Burmese Muslims are the descendants of Islamic people who intermarried with local Burmese ethnic groups like Rakhine, Shan, Karen, Mon etc.

The dilemma of citizenship for Muslim people

The spread of Islam in Myanmar increased during the British era of Burma. This is because a new wave of Indian Muslim Immigration came to Myanmar. They arrived in Myanmar as travellers, adventures, sailors and traders. Also, a number of them were prisoners of wars. Some of them were traditional medicine men.

The Islamic people of Myanmar are mostly Sunni. They live largely in the north of Rakhine state. The Muslim community of Burma is divided into two groups. These two groups are, whose ancestors are long-established, and whose ancestors arrived during the British period. The majority of Muslims in Myanmar is Rohingya.

Rohingya and most Muslims who originated from India and Bangladesh would have been considered as a citizen under the 1948 Constitution and civilian administration. Then the military coup of 1962. Then their status was subsequently downgraded. Therefore, discriminatory obstacles started soon. The cycle of violence and crackdown by authorities is still ongoing.

For example, in 1991, violence on Rohingya may have resulted in as many as 270,000 refugees taking shelter in the Cox’s Bazaar district of neighbouring Bangladesh.

Current issues

Mahfuz’s face was slightly flustered while talking about these controversial issues. He took a short pause then again started. ‘The Rohingya are considered to be one of the most tortured minorities in the world. This is a humanitarian crisis! But our religion always preached for peace, do you remember what Allah says?’

I replied, “ And if two groups of believers fight each other, then make peace between them. But if one of them transgresses against the other, then fight against the transgressing group until they ˹are willing to˺ submit to the rule of Allah. If they do so, then make peace between both ˹groups˺ in all fairness and act justly. Surely Allah loves those who uphold justice. [Quran 49:9]”

The conflict between the Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya resulted in large scale attacks on the Rohingya community. Thus many of them attempted to flee the country in boats and ended up in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. The violence has spread to a number of Myanmar’s city which resulted in religious segregation.

Though the UN and other countries are intervening to save and help the Rohingyas, still, it is a long way to go.

Mahfuz and I sat for a long time that night with hand in our hands. Being a Muslim, we all know how our religion has survived every time from the atrocities. Let us just pray the Allah helps our fellow Rohingya brothers and keep Islam in Myanmar at peace. Ameen.


(Written by freelance journalist Shreya T)

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