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The Muslims Of Burma; by Mosheh Yegar
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Nov 06, 12

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Moshe Yegar’s The Muslims of Burma traces the history of Muslim minorities in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Initially submitted as the Master of Arts thesis to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his study is primarily about the history of Muslim organizations, both secular and religious, in Myanmar proper and the revolt of Muslim Mujahidden insurgents in Arakan region of western Myanmar. In this book, Yegar not only attempts to trace back the origins of Muslims in the days of the Burmese kings but also makes an effort to describe their religious, political and social conditions during the colonial and post-colonial periods in Myanmar. As far as the reviewer knows, it is the first study of Muslim minorities in Myanmar by a foreigner.

Moshe Yegar served as a diplomat in the Embassy of Israel in Yangon (Rangoon) in early 1960s. His MA thesis is based on a range of interviews mainly conducted with Muslims during his tenure as a Second Secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Myanmar as well as contemporary newspapers, pamphlets and magazine articles. The sources he used for the period before 1800 are very scanty and his descriptions about the presence of Muslims in Myanmar in the earlier centuries are not based on the primary sources. Yegar only uses secondary literature written in English and has not been able to consult either original Burmese language source materials or to interview non-Muslim Burmese people for his research.

The study is divided into four chapters. Chapter I traces the presence of Muslim people in Myanmar from about the eleventh century to the British occupation in the nineteenth century. For the history of the arrival of Muslims in Bagan period (11th-13th century) the author narrates about the two brothers – supposedly Muslims – who became horsemen under the Bagan king Anawratha and about a “Muslim Arab” who served as the mentor of the Bagan prince Saw Lu in the eleventh century (pp. 2-3). These narratives are not supported by indigenous sources where the two brothers are just simply portrayed as “Indians” – not as “Muslims”. Contemporary inscriptions of the Bagan period suggest the mentor of Saw Lu as an ethnic “Mon” of Lower Myanmar – not an “Arab Muslim”. Yegar’s description about the Arakanese exiled king in Bengal who was allegedly supported by a Bengal sultan to regain the throne of Arakan in AD 1430 and the arrival of the Muslim followers of the sultan in Arakan as its consequence (pp. 18-19) is found neither in the Bengal sources nor in the contemporary Arakanese inscriptions and chronicle sources.

Chapters II and III discuss the conditions of the Muslim communities in Myanmar during the colonial era and the period after Burmese independence respectively. These chapters mainly deal with the social and political problems of the twentieth century.

The author discusses about Muslims in Burma into three categories – Indian Muslims, Burmese Muslims who were commonly known at that time as “Zerbadees” and Muslims from Arakan also known as ‘Rohingyas’. Out of all Muslims in Myanmar, about one-third were Indian Muslims born in India, another one-third were Indian Muslims who had been born in Myanmar, a quarter were so-called “Zerbadees” or the descendants of Indian Muslims and Burmese, and the rest were others. According to 1931 census, about 4% of Myanmar’s total populations were Muslims. The author discusses the identity conflicts between Indian Muslims – whose presence in Myanmar was due to the large-scale immigration from India after the annexation of Myanmar by the British – and “Zerbadee” Burmese Muslims whose ancestors, according to the author, had come to Myanmar since the times of the Burmese kings. While “Zerbadee” or “Burmese Muslims” were accustomed to Burmese language, dress and traditions, Indian Muslims were building up their ethnic and religious identities by establishing mosques, wearing distinctive Indian dress and speaking “Urdu” language.

He further discusses about the Burmese Muslims who clearly dissociated themselves from the Indian Muslims declaring themselves to be “the first and foremost Burmese” with the same language and culture as the Buddhist Burmese “siblings” (p. 66). Besides, the author argues that anti-Muslim riots of 1938 in Myanmar happened due to the Burmese nationalist movements as well as the sudden outbreak of religious arguments between Buddhism and Islam in Burmese media at that time (pp. 35-36). However, he fails to mention the economic deprivation of the Burmese people as the Indians Muslims became the dominant economic force in Myanmar. Burmese historians consider these facts as one of the main reasons for the occurrence of anti-Muslim riots.

Finally, he discusses about the Mujahidden rebellion (1948-61) in northern Arakan and their movement to establish an independent Muslim state (p. 97). He argues that such separatist movement occurred in western Myanmar for these reasons – after independence, Muslims were not accepted for military service; the Burmese government replaced Muslim civil servants, police and headmen by Arakanese who increasingly discriminated against the Muslim community; Muslims were arbitrarily arrested by police and soldiers; and, the immigration authorities imposed limitation of movement upon Muslims (p. 98). His arguments seem to be anachronistic. Firstly, we have to note that Muslim separatist movements in Arakan had already begun before Myanmar’s independence together with an idea of separating the Mayu region of Arakan from Myanmar and creating an independent Muslim state. In May, 1946, Muslims of Arakan asked Mohammad Ali Jinna’s assistance in the annexing of this region to forthcoming Pakistan (p. 96). Secondly, the Mujahidden rebellion (1947-1961) happened under U Nu’s parliamentary democracy rule. Available records for this democratic period do not show any trace on the discrimination against Muslims – even Muslim ministers were holding high positions within U Nu’s democracy government. Thirdly, such discriminations and oppressions were only carried out by Burmese authorities under the military dictatorship of General Ne Win (1962-1988). It seems that Moshe Yegar anachronistically utilized the Muslims’ conditions under the Ne Win regime as the roots of the Mujahidden separatist movements.

Chapter IV concludes the study. Following the coup d’état of General Ne Win in 1962, and as a result of the persecution of his military regime, many Indians (both Muslims and Hindus) left Myanmar in large numbers, resulting the population of Indians in Myanmar from estimated numbers of 600,000 to 700,0000 at the time of independence to the population of 250,000 in 1970s. Yegar’s work should be studied together with Nalini Ranjan Chakravarti’s The Indian Minority in Burma: the rise and decline of an immigrant community (1971) which analyses the social organization, religious beliefs and value systems of the Indian minorities (many include Muslims) that had played a prominent role in the economic life of Myanmar.

Moshe Yegar’s work is the result of painstaking research and is the first study of its kind on the Muslim minority of Myanmar. Unfortunately, his narratives are based on secondary sources and interviews with some members of the Muslim communities only. Thorough analysis or verification for the accuracy of his source materials are not found in Yegar’s book. However, it should be emphasized that the study on the minority groups in a Southeast Asian country is not an easy task. The energetic efforts of an enthusiast like Mr Yegar will be fruitful to other researchers and stimulate a revitalization of academic studies on Myanmar’s religious minority groups.

The Muslims Of Burma;
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