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The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group by Moshe Yegar

 Category: History  Publisher: Moshe Yegar  Published: 1 January 1972  Tags: ArakanMuslimsNatives of ArakanRohingya |  Download


In June, 1960, I was sent to Burma to serve as a Second Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Rangoon. Permission was granted me by the Hebrew University, Jeru-salem, to submit a thesis on the subject ‘‘Muslims in Burma” for my M. A. degree.

The history of the Muslim community in Burma has not yet been properly studied. Nor has any ember of that community yet bothered to collect the written material that does exist or to obtain oral, eye-witness reports from those who took part in the various activities of the community during the period of British rule and since Burma obtained her independence.

The present study is an attempt to deal with the Muslim community in Burma from the eleventh century up until the year 1962. My main purpose was, first of all, to reconstruct the chronological history of the community and to follow the main trends that characterized that community. I was, however, handicapped by the scarcity of available sources. The major sources for the history of the Muslims in the days of the Burmese kings are the writings of European travelers, of emissaries to the court of Burma, and of missionaries, as well as several general history books on Burma, India and Southeast Asia, scattered throughout which were to be found facts and comments on the Muslim community. I also made use of a series of articles on the Arakan Muslims which appeared in the monthly Guardian published in Rangoon by a daily newspaper of the same name. Articles and studies on specific and detailed subjects relating to the period of the kings were found in the Journal of the Burma Research Society and in publications of Muslim schools and associations in Burma.

Particular significance is to be attributed to a two-part article by Siddiq Khan, published in Islamic Culture, Hyderabad (see bibliography). His was the first attempt and as far as I know, the only one so far, to deal with the beginnings of the Muslim community in Burma. Important material is included also in several unpublished works, especially in the lecture which Col. Ba Shin delivered in Delhi in 1961. Other works are mentioned in the bibliography.

The richest sources and the most varied ones are those dealing with British rule in Burma. In addition to reports of travelers and the memoirs and recollections of British administrative officials and newspapers, there is a mine of information in official publications of the British government: The Gavetteers of the districts of Burma, census reports, and the reports of the various enquiry committees that the British frequently sent to all their colonies.

Various publications and documents – annual reports, magazines, unpublished letters, and other papers — in the possession of some individuals in Rangoon which were placed at my disposal made it possible for me to reconstruct the history and activities of Muslim organizations in the period between the two world wars and since the independence of Burma. I was unsuccessful in obtaining several original documents bearing upon the important Muslim organization that held the annual Education Conferences between the World Wars. I have tried to reconstruct the missing data from other sources and from oral reports.

On developments within the Muslim community in the period following World War II, there are available several official government publications, many articles and informative newspaper articles, and especially the publications of the Muslim organizations and their institutions, their annual reports, yearbooks of educational institutions, and the like. Here, too, I filled in the missing links with personal communications from Muslims and non-Muslims. Wherever possible, I verified the information gathered; some of the people interviewed supplemented their conversations with memoranda prepared especially for me. In dealing with the postwar period I concentrated mainly on the political issues, not only because the availability of source material imposed it upon me but also because political issues were the main concern of the Muslim community at that time.

In an attempt to become more clearly acquainted with my subject of research, I visited as frequently as possible Muslim mosques, schools, cemetaries, and the Muslim Hospital in Rangoon, and I participated in Muslim functions of all kinds both in Rangoon and up country in the area around Mandalay and the Shan states. I found hospitality and courtesy wherever I went.

At times I draw comparisons between the Muslims and other such minority groups as the Hindus and the Chinese who faced similar problems: assimilation and identity with the Buddhist majority on the one hand and the struggle to maintain their particular heritage on the other. These minority groups exhibit symptoms of nervousness similar to the Muslims as to their place in the society, perhaps justified, and this finds expression in somewhat exaggerated social and religious activity and in the establishment of so large a number of organizations and associations, some of them even fictional. But my main interest centered on the main issues of Muslim life in Burma, the inner struggles of the various groups of the Muslims, the Burmese Muslims versus the Indian Muslims and the struggle of the Burmese Muslims for recognition with the British administration, a struggle that turned out to be much inore acute with the leaders of the later Burmese National Movement. In this respect a comparative study of the Muslim community in Burma with the Muslim communities of similar magnitude in Ceylon and the Philippines might have particular interest.
This tempting study must eventually be made.

Very little is known as to how deeply the Muslims in Burma were affected by the military rule of General Ne Win who seized power in a military coup in March, 1962, and to what extent their organizational life and religious and cultural activities were affected. There is little doubt that most of the activities of the Muslims and of other minority groups ceased and that the minorities were deprived of what autonomy they enjoyed during the parliamentary regime of U Nu. The emigration of Indians from Burma since March, 1962, has undoubtedly transformed much of what existed before. It is for this reason that I conclude my study with the military coup. From then on a completely new era begins in Burma, not only for the Muslim community of that country but for the rest of the Burmese people as well.

Many of the situations described in the present tense from chapter 2 on should probably be changed to the past tense, but for lack of documented evidence concerning the events that followed the coup, no attempt was made to do so.

The inconsistency in spelling of such words as Moslem/Muslim, Cholia/Chulia, Zerbadee/Zerbadi, and so on, is caused by the fact that each organization adopted its own spelling.