WHEN Islam first arrived in this ancient region, called “Burma” under the British and “Myanmar” after 1989, is difficult to determine. With China to the north, India and Bangladesh to the northwest and Thailand to the east and south, Myanmar faces west into the Andaman Sea.
The name “Burma” is a British colonial construct for a country that was plundered for its natural wealth. British rule lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars to the creation of Burma as a province of British India, to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and then finally, to independence in 1948.
The locals called their country “myanma naing ngan”, the lexical source of the name Myanmar. The British imperial tongue stumbled over these words and adopted Burma, naming the country Burma in honour of the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group.
From the earliest times, Myanmar was known to seafarers from Persia, Arabia, India, China and Indonesia. It was renowned for its rubies, sapphire, jade, teak and rice. It was also part of the overland silk route from India to China. The earliest archaeological evidence suggests civilisations existed in Myanmar as early as 11,000 BCE.
It is along these sea routes and overland passes that not only trade, but culture and faith travelled. The old Arakan Kingdom, which is our focus, hugs the western coastline as a long finger of land, abutting Bangladesh in the northwest. The region is divided from Burma by a range of mountains, the Arakan Yomas.
The people of Arakan are known as Rakhine, or Rohingya, with Arakan annexed to British India in 1826. Researchers say the name “Rohingya” (as well as “Rakhine”) is probably derived from “Rohingyahang”, an ancient name for Arakan.
The Rohingya hail from the Rakhine State, Arakan, which in pre-colonial times was a distinct region, sometimes one kingdom and sometimes several kingdoms. They were either ruled by Buddhist potentates, Hindu kings, Muslim Sultans, or hybrid Muslim-Buddhist courts.
The history of the region is complex, convoluted and very often layered with multi-ethnic and multi-faith narratives. The Rohingya are an intimate part of this diverse tapestry, a colourful human tapestry in Myanmar which has 135 different ethnic groups in a population of about 55 million.
Some sources claim that the first Muslim in Myanmar was Muhammad ibn Hanafiyya, a son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, one of the Righteous Caliphs who ruled after the demise of the Prophet.
According to legends he converted a cannibal queen, Kaiyapuri, to Islam and married her.
The most enduring narrative is that from the 8th century onwards, Muslim seafarers settled along the coast, marrying into local communities. This thesis coincides with how Islam arrived in the China Seas, spreading to northern Sumatra and mainland China.
To the maritime Arabs and Persians, the coastal regions of Arakan en route to the Malacca Straits, would have been well known.
Other sources maintain that the very first Muslims to be mentioned in the Myanmar chronicles, the Maha Rajaweng, were the two sons of an Arab merchant, Byat Wi and Byat Ta, in 1050 CE. The second mention in the chronicles is Yaman Khan, or Rahman Khan, from the days of King Sawlu (1077-1088), who succeeded his father Anawrahta to the throne. Anawrahta, the first king of Myanmar, introduced Theravada Buddhism.
It propagated four noble truths: that existence itself was suffering; that suffering had a cause in earthly attachment; that there was a cessation of this suffering by striving; and that there was a path to success by achieving nirvana, or cosmic harmony.
Anawrahta’s capital on the Irrawaddy River became a prominent city of pagodas and temples. Interestingly, Anawrahta appointed a Muslim-Arab scholar as a royal teacher to his son, Prince Sawlu. When Prince Sawlu became king, he appointed the son of his teacher as well as his childhood friend, Yaman Khan, as governor of the city of Pegu.
This cultural intimacy between Buddhism and Islam from the earliest days is something forgotten in the contemporary xenophobic narrative of the Rohingya, which has been marred by the ultra-nationalism of the current Myanmar state; a sugar-coated junta which claims the Rohingya belong to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Ironically, it is this very same junta that makes a Freudian slip when one of its official publications, Sasana Ronwas Htunzepho, published in 1997 says, “Islam spread and was deeply rooted in Arakan (the Rakhine Rohingyan state) since the 8th century from where it further spread into the interior of Burma.”
An example of this is the old city of Mrauk U, which literally means “monkey’s egg”. It is a sleepy town today, but for 355 years, was the seat of the Arakan Empire where Portuguese, Dutch and French traders rubbed shoulders with the literati of Bengal and Indian Mughal princes. It was part of the Bengal sultanate from 1430-1531.
At its peak, Mrauk U controlled half of Bangladesh, Arakan and the western part of lower Myanmar. Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples and mosques were built as the city grew. In fact, the golden city of Mrauk U became known in Europe as a centre of oriental splendour.
Buddhist rulers style themselves after the Sultans
Historians note that the Buddhist rulers, who took power after 1531, styled themselves after the Sultans, even giving themselves Islamic titles such as “Shah”, and hiring Muslim civil servants. They adopted the conical Sufi hats of Isfahan and Delhi. They also minted coins inscribing the kalimah in Persian and Arabic calligraphy.
The Mandalay academic, Dr Ko Ko Gyi, says, “This was because they (the Arakanese kings) not only wished to be thought of as sultans in their own rights, but also because there were Muslims in ever larger numbers among their subjects.”
Indeed, there were large scale conversions of Buddhists to Islam from the 15th to 18th centuries, with the Mughals taking over Arakan in 1665. Later, when the Dutch were ordered by the Mughals to quit Arakan, they were afraid of leaving behind the children they’d had with local women, horrified at the idea of them becoming Muslim.
Once a sovereign and independent entity, and geographically and historically cut off from the rest of the country, these facts explain the distinctly separate development of Arakan in terms of its Muslim population. This until the Burmese king, Bodaw Paya, conquered and looted it on 28th December 1784, taking its regent and 20,000 captives.
Thousands of Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists were put to death. 30, 000 Burmese soldiers destroyed mosques, temples, shrines, seminaries and libraries. The fall of the Mrauk-U Empire was a mortal blow to the Muslims, for everything Islamic in it was razed to the ground.
In 1790, Hiram Cox, a British diplomat sent to assist Arakan, or Rohingya, refugees established the town of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. This is where many Rohingya still live today, and where there is the biggest Rohingyan refugee camp in the world with nearly one million inhabitants.
Bodaw Paya’s disruption would seal the modern-day fate of Arakan and shape Myanmar’s jaundiced perceptions of the Muslim minority. Michael Symes, the British representative at Bodaw Paya’s court, described him as “a child in his ideas, a tyrant in his principles, and a madman in his actions”.
Bodaw Paya was an extremist Buddhist who had proclaimed himself a messianic figure. He even persecuted other Buddhist sects, deeming the Buddhist sins of drinking, smoking opium and killing animals punishable by death. His reign was so oppressive that in 1794 the people of Arakan rose up against him.
When Bodaw Paya sent an army to crush the revolt, thousands of refugees fled from Arakan into British territory. Conditions on the Arakan border became so unsettled that in 1795 the British had to send a representative to negotiate with Bodaw Paya. By 1826, the British had annexed Arakan to colonial Burma.
1942 Burmese nationalists slaughter Muslims and Buddhists
In 1942, during the Second World War, Japan invaded Myanmar. As the British retreated, Burmese nationalists attacked Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan whom they thought had benefited from British colonial rule. 40,000 Rohingya and 20,000 Arakan Buddhists were slaughtered
Britain liberated Myanmar from Japanese occupation with the help of Burmese nationalists and Rohingya fighters in 1945. The British recognised the Rohingya Muslims as a distinct racial group, and promised them autonomy in North Arakan. However, the British didn’t fulfil their promise.
In 1948 tensions increased between the government of newly independent Burma and the Rohingya, many of whom wanted Arakan to join Pakistan. The government retaliated by ostracizing the Rohingya, including the removal of Rohingyan civil servants from their posts.
Prior to 1962, and the socialist era, the government tried to appease Rohingyan aspirations of autonomy with limited Arakan nationhood. This came against a background of armed resistance led by the Mujahid movement and the former Qawali singer, Jafar Kawal.
After the military coup of March 1962, the military regime led by General Ne Win, cancelled plans to grant Arakan statehood. In February 1963, the regime nationalised all commercial enterprises. In Arakan, most of the business establishments were in the hands of the Rohingya Muslims.
If that wasn’t enough, in 1964 Rohingyan welfare organisations were banned. In 1965, the military regime banned the Rohingyan language from the airwaves. In 1974, the Peoples’ Congress ratified Arakan as the Rakhine State. It was now controlled by a Buddhist majority with the Rohingya marginalised.
The discrimination against the Rohingya is best explained by the military junta systematically – and cynically – stoking the fears of the demise of Buddhism (89% of the population compared to Muslims being 4%), and the break-up of the nation due to Islamic insurgency. This was done to cultivate loyalty in a population resentful of unpopular junta policies.
The narrative that Myanmar needs to protect Buddhism from Islam is a cheap and tawdry nationalism that has persisted for over a century. And as with so many dictatorships, 911 would prove to be a boon for Myanmar’s junta, which in the name of fighting “Islamic terror” could justify its human rights abuses.
Operation King Dragon 1978
The fact is that by the 1970s the Rohingya, the straw dogs of Burmese nationalism, had already become victims of state-sponsored terror. During “Operation King Dragon” in 1978, military forces targeted the Rohingya, and were accused of mass detentions, rape, and the burning of villages. 300,000 people fled to nearby Bangladesh.
In 1982, the Rohingya were denied citizenship under the Myanmar Nationality Law. The junta’s apartheid was entrenched by imposing severe restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice and freedom of movement.
In 1991, another targeted campaign, “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation,” ostensibly directed at squashing the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, pushed another 200,000 people out of the country. These pogroms, now acknowledged as genocide, were to happen again (post 911) in 2012, 2015, 2016, and would come to an ugly head in 2017.
Space precludes a detailed examination of the horrors of the consistent Myanmar pogroms, but on 25 August 2017 a group of young men from a small resistance movement, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked a military barracks with knives and home-made bombs. In the attack, they killed 12 security force officials.
International think tanks have alleged that ARSA has Saudi roots, but its spokesman told the Asia Times in 2017 that it had no so-called jihadi links, and was a bona fide resistance movement.
Response to the attacks was regarded by the UN as grossly disproportionate to the actual security threats posed. Nearly 300 villages were razed to the ground. This violence, set off by the military, was accompanied by mass killings, rapes and torture. An estimated 3,000 Rohingya perished, which caused a migration of 700,000 people.
In a 2018 report, the UN cited six senior military figures for possible genocide, naming commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. The UN, which has always been circumspect about using the word “genocide”, used it in its report.
Since the 2000s there have been two key personalities complicit in the Rohingya genocide. The first is an extremist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who on the cover of Time Magazine of 1 July 2013, was described as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
He is a member of the 969 group, an ultra-nationalist movement opposed to what it sees as Islam’s unwelcome expansion in Buddhist Myanmar. Banned on Facebook, Wirathu is a leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha.
The Baghdadi of Buddhism, Wirathu has coloured his preaching by stoking up Islamaphobic hate. For Wirathu it is the simple equation of Rohingya swartgevaar, of a Saudi-backed Bangladeshi insurgency, whose sole purpose is to destroy Buddhism and establish a caliphate.
In January 2015, he publicly called UN envoy Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” and invited her to offer her “arse to the kalars” (a derogatory term for Rohingya). Of Muslims, he once said, “You cannot sleep next to a mad dog…”
San Suu Kyi
He also called Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s political leader, a “prostitute”. He has also accused her political party, the National League for Democracy, of secretly supporting a Muslim agenda. He has also said if Myanmar officials are brought to book he will be holding a gun, something totally against Theravada Buddhism.
The state has slapped him on the wrist, even suggesting sedition charges be laid against him for insulting Aung San Suu Kyi, but he remains at large with the monastic authorities also seemingly unable to curb him.
The most disappointing figure by far is Aung San Suu Kyi, the former human rights activist and peace advocate, who whilst under house arrest in Rangoon, received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Once idolised by millions around the globe, she has proved to be hugely remiss and beholden to the junta on the Rohingya question since her election victory of 2015. Her fall from grace has been spectacular. By August last year, she had been stripped of no less than seven international awards.
As Myanmar’s leading public figure, she has an angered and infuriated the international community on her reluctance to seriously acknowledge the crisis, which sees the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on earth. Sadly, most of the world’s leaders – eyeing prime jade and teak – have been unforgivably and equally mute as her on Myanmar’s genocide pogrom, the worst since the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
The article first appeared in the Habibia Diary 2020.