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Crackdown on Burmese Muslims
Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper
July 2002
  (download PDF version - 12 pages)


Background on Muslims in Burma

Burma has been ruled by successive repressive, authoritarian regimes since 1962, when General Ne Win seized power. In 1988, the armed forces brutally suppressed massive pro-democracy demonstrations and since then a junta of senior military officers has ruled by decree, claiming only to be a transitional government. During the last fourteen years the military's human rights record has been appalling. The suppression of political and religious activities has been endemic through the whole of this period.2

The latest Burmese Constitution, adopted in 1974, restricts religious freedom and stresses the paramount supremacy of the State. It states that "the national races shall enjoy the freedom to profess their religion...provided that the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest."3 But violence and discrimination against Burma's Muslim minority has been commonplace over the last four decades. Islamic leaders in Rangoon believe that attitudes among the predominantly Buddhist Burmese population began to change from tolerance to persecution after General Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962. Since then, Muslims have been deliberately and systematically excluded from official positions in the government and the army.

The Burmese government estimates that some four percent of the population are Muslims. However, Islamic leaders believe that Muslims make up nearly ten percent of the population. There has been no official census since Burma gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948. Apart from Arakan, the western Burmese state that borders Bangladesh and is home to the Muslim Rohingyas, Burma's Muslims live predominantly in urban areas throughout the country. According to a senior Muslim leader in Rangoon, most Muslims are indistinguishable in appearance and behavior from the country's Buddhists: they dress the same, wear longyis, speak Burmese, and understand Burmese culture and history.

During the British colonial period and the early years of independence, Muslims played an important role. They held high positions in government and civil society. They were also in the forefront of the fight for independence from the British. After independence, Muslims continued to play a prominent role in the country's business, industrial, and cultural activities. Many Muslims were public servants, soldiers, and even officers. At the time of the last democratically elected parliament in the 1960s, there was at least one Muslim minister and several Muslim members of parliament.

This all changed after General Ne Win seized power in 1962. He initiated the systematic expulsion of Muslims from government and the army. There is no written directive that bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government, according to Muslim leaders in Burma, but in practice that is what happens.

Although there is no official state religion, the Burmese military government actively endorses Theravada Buddhism in practice, as have previous governments - both civilian and military. The government is increasingly seen identifying itself with Buddhism. The state-controlled media often shows military leaders and government ministers paying homage to Buddhist monks; making donations to pagodas throughout the country; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, or restore pagodas; and organizing forced donations of money, food, and labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines throughout the country. State-owned newspapers regularly feature slogans and quotations from Buddhist scriptures. While undoubtedly motivated in part by religious conviction, this close identification is also seen by many observers as part of the military's strategy to find some form of legitimacy for its rule.

Muslims and Christians have major difficulties in obtaining permission to build places of worship and in importing indigenous-language translations of traditional sacred texts. In fact, over the last ten years there have been numerous reports of mosques being destroyed, in some cases with Buddhist stupas being built in their place.

Muslims in Burma have long suffered from ethnic and religious discrimination. Historical sources suggest that the majority Buddhist population has viewed Muslims with suspicion almost from the time they began to become a significant minority in Burma twelve hundred years ago. While there are no written regulations or laws that mandate any of the customary discriminatory practices which have emerged in Burma today, mistrust and antipathy toward Muslims is deeply rooted.

The Burmese4 have had a long tradition of intermarriage, especially between Burmans and members of ethnic groups found in eastern Burma --Karens, Mons and Shans - which are predominantly Buddhist. In recent years there has also been substantial intermarriage with members of the Chinese community, also made easier by shared religious beliefs. But this occurs far less often in the case of Muslims; normally, marrying into a Muslim family entails conversion to Islam.

Over the decades, many anti-Muslim pamphlets have circulated in Burma claiming that the Muslim community wants to establish supremacy through intermarriage. One of these, Myo Pyauk Hmar Soe Kyauk Hla Tai (or The Fear of Losing One's Race) was widely distributed in 2001, often by monks, and many Muslims feel that this exacerbated the anti-Islam feelings that had been provoked by the destruction in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.5

Local Buddhist monks have often been at the center of these campaigns. According to Burmese Muslim leaders, distribution of pamphlets in 2001 was also supported by the Union of Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a government-sponsored mass organization that fulfils a social and political function for the military.

Officially sanctioned action against the Muslim community has varied over the last two decades. In the mid-nineties there were several attempts to eliminate mosques in different parts of the country, including in Rangoon. But it is more than two years now since any mosques in Rangoon were forcibly closed or razed, according to the president of Burma's Islamic Affairs Council. These previous efforts in Buddhist areas of Burma often had official backing, unlike most of the attacks on the mosques in 2001.

It is difficult to estimate the extent of damage done to mosques in eastern Burma during the violence last year. Many still remain closed, especially in Taungoo where the worst violence occurred. Even in many of the mosques that have reopened, the damage is still clearly visible, as in Pegu.

Special identity papers and travel restrictions on Muslims have also long been in force. Burma denies citizenship status to most Muslim Rohingyas, for example, on the grounds that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule in 1824.6 The U.N. special rapporteur on Burma in 1993 urged the government to "abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities."7

Restrictions seem to have been far more rigidly enforced last year because of heightened concerns about the Muslim community. There are many credible reports of Muslims being taken off buses and trains when they were not able to produce their travel papers, and in some cases even when they did. For instance, in February 2001, eight Muslim men traveling to Rangoon were arrested despite having identity papers because they were traveling outside Arakan State without permission from the local police. They were sentenced to seven years imprisonment.8 In October, a Muslim man was taken off a plane in Kawthaung airport in southern Burma, bound for Rangoon without apparent reason; his ticket was cancelled.9

One Muslim woman, a resident of Rangoon, told Human Rights Watch she was unable to return home after traveling to the Andaman Sea on holiday because, she said, the local authorities insisted that she needed a visa to return. She was allowed to travel back to Rangoon two weeks later.

Muslims wanting to perform the Haj in 2002 also faced especially tight restrictions this past year. In most years several thousand Muslims travel to Mecca for the Haj. Senior Islamic leaders in Rangoon estimate that more than five thousand pilgrims travel to Mecca in a typical year by their own means. This is on top of the two hundred Muslims who go as part of the official Burmese delegation, arranged by the military government. In 2002, only the two hundred pilgrims on the officially organized visit to Mecca were allowed to make the trip.

The government insists there was no prohibition on travel. In theory Muslims were allowed to go on the Haj, Muslims leaders say, but no one was able to get a passport to travel. The number of passports granted to Burmese citizens has been drastically cut, according to official sources in Rangoon. Before last November, more than a thousand passports were issued a month; this has been reduced. Although all Burmese reportedly now have to wait longer for a passport and pay more in bribes for it, Muslims claim that they have had to endure even more than other groups due to prejudice. The president of the Burmese Islamic Council says the percentage of Muslims applicants getting passports has now fallen from 20 percent to 5 percent. This not only makes performing the Haj more difficult, but also restricts Muslim businessmen's commercial activities.

Although Buddhism is not officially enshrined as the national religion, the Burmese military government often uses Buddhism as a means of laying claim to a form of national legitimacy. The senior generals use Buddhism to bolster their authority, frequently visiting pagodas and paying tribute. Intelligence chief Lt. General Khin Nyunt has even built a new pagoda near the Rangoon Mingaladon airport.

However, in 2001, the SPDC was far more pragmatic in its approach, partly because their new policy of actively engaging the international community meant that they needed a more measured approach to religious tolerance. The SPDC was anxious to maintain strong relations with Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, leader of the largest Muslim country in mainland Southeast Asia.

But the Burmese government's approach during much of 2001, at least in areas outside Arakan State, also reflected the belief that to prevent major outbreaks of social unrest they would need to contain Muslim sentiment. Military leaders apparently feared that young hotheads amongst the Muslim community might be provoked into violent action.

Such unrest is something the military regime wants to avoid at all costs. In a rapidly deteriorating economy, with the price of stable goods like edible oil and rice increasing sharply, the possibility of social disturbances developing into a food riot has haunted government leaders. Something similar happened in 1988 and helped spark the massive pro-democracy movement. It paralyzed the government for several months before the military coup on September 18 brutally crushed the demonstrations and established military rule throughout the country.

The Burmese government's reaction to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhist images at Bamiyan in March 2001 was mixed from the start. Government sources say the military regime sent a formal letter of protest to the Taliban authorities in Kabul but never made its action public. Pictures and videos of the event, pirated and copied from foreign publications and foreign broadcasters, were confiscated by the military authorities for fear they would enflame the country's Buddhist population. The SPDC's failure to publicly condemn the destruction of Buddhist images angered many monks, residents of Rangoon told Human Rights Watch. The government quickly imposed curfews in those towns where violence erupted and in some towns even cut communications, as in Taungoo, Taunggi, and Pegu. Senior Buddhist monks were told to instruct the heads of local monasteries to keep their young monks in their compounds, according to one Rangoon-based monk. "Many monks in Rangoon have also been told not to travel outside the city at present," he said. "They were told there was a nation-wide ban on all religious ceremonies."

The government was also nervous about the Burmese population seeing footage of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Some footage was shown on television and newspapers carried minimal coverage of the events of September 11, but with few photos. In many parts of the country, including Rangoon, military authorities closed the mosques and banned mass gatherings, including meetings for worship. Plainclothes military intelligence officers and police were stationed near mosques in most cities, according to Islamic leaders in Rangoon.

Military authorities again imposed curfews in places where violence erupted in October, describing the curfews as precautionary and intended to prevent individuals from spreading rumors with the intention of creating inter-religious conflict. A government press release announced: "The Government will not condone hate crimes or harassments targeted not only to Muslims but other religions."10 As a result, security measures, travel restrictions, and measures against illegal immigration were "beefed up."

While there are credible reports that military intelligence officers were involved in stirring up anti-Muslim violence in some cities outside Rangoon, other officials seemed to have been concerned that religious riots not get out of control.

2 See Human Rights Watch World Reports, chapters on Burma, 1990-2002.

3 Article 21 (b) of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, 1974.

4 The term Burmese is generally used for citizenship and Burman for the ethnic group.

5 "Giant Buddha statues `blown up,'" BBC, March 11, 2001, available at: (July 12, 2002).

6 For details on Burma's highly restrictive citizenship law see Human Rights Watch/Asia, "Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution," May 2000.

7 Ibid.

8 Mizzama News February 13, 2001.

9 Irradawaddy Magazine Online October 10, 2001.

10 Myanmar Information Sheet, 17th October 2001.