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"And We Always Thought We Were Burm

Subject: "And We Always Thought We Were Burmese Too!" from Burma Issues

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Burma Issues
May 1996


And We Always Thought We Were Burmese
by KR

Around 87% of Burma's people are Buddhists.
Christians (4.5%) and Muslims (4%) make up
small but solid minorities, represented mostly
in rural areas among Burma's many ethnic
groups. An even smaller minority is Hindu
(1.5%) and the Jewish congregation numbers
40 - just 8 families in Rangoon. 

The western state of Rakhine which shares a
border with Bangladesh, is home to a large
Muslim population. The Rohingya Muslims fled
to Bangladesh in their hundreds of thousands
in 1978 and 1991 to escape the appalling
abuses being levelled against them. Forced
relocations, suppression of their culture and
thousands of disappearances resulted in the
exoduses. Their repatriation, now under the
supervision of UNHCR, fills many Muslims with
fear and trepidation as the abuses continue. 

Muslim shopkeepers in Rangoon have
occupied the same commercial areas for
generations, but in a clean - up operation for
'Visit Myanmar Year', they are being forced to
sell up shop and their land (prime real estate)
is being confiscated by the SLORC. Two
thousand Muslim shopkeepers are being
offered the choice of buying land out of town
for grossly inflated prices or simply moving on. 
This is the third time in four years that such a
land grab has occured. 

In Burma, if you cannot trace your Burmese
ancestry back to a time prior to British rule then
you cannot claim status as an indigenous
group and you are denied the rights of
citizenship, such as they are. Most Muslims in
Burma arrived during British rule, when the
British rulers were looking for an educated
middle class to be the foundation of the public
service. The exoduses to Bangladesh and the
confiscation of lands in Rangoon must be seen
in this light. To the SLORC, these people do
not belong in Burma anyway and even the
flight of the Rohinga was originally described
as an expulsion of illegal immigrants. 

This abuse of Muslim peoples has extended to
their places of worship. At three Pagodas Pass
in the east, the SLORC took over a mosque
with a congregation of a thousand worshippers
and is now using it as a base. In the west in
Arakan, a holy site, the Jamme Mosque, was
demolished by the SLORC and a much more
lucrative venture - a hotel and restaurant - was
built in its place. 

One group of Muslims - the Panthay Chinese
Muslims in northern Shan state - has recently
acquired indigenous status and the rights of
citizenship. The SLORC has even built a new
mosque in Tachilek. Why would they pull down
a mosque in Arakan and build one in Tachilek?
A realistic reply is that China supplies much
foreign investment and most of Burma's arms.
A concession to a Muslim group may also be
seen as a gesture when Burma is seeking full
membership of ASEAN, many of whose
member states have substantial Muslim

This manipulation of religious groups and the
issues close to them is a trademark of the
SLORC, and it is becoming a feature of many
of their dealings with ethnic groups. They take
with one hand and give (if it is advantageous to
them) with the other. They use concessions as
carrots in their negotiations and as rewards for
cooperation, then they paint that cooperation
with the colours of unity, patriotism and loyalty
to the notion of a united Myanmar. What is sad
is that many groups of Christians and Muslims
are allowing this to happen. They accept the
rewards - air time on television at Easter,
money for projects in areas where cease fires
have been signed, attendance at official events
by members of the SLORC - as moves
towards reasonableness and a vital source of
funds, rather than seeing it all as a cynical
manipulation of the whole faith issue in Burma. 

Christianity came to Burma with the British.
Western missionaries also helped in some
areas to create a script for the notation of local
languages, a useful tool in progress towards
literacy. In Chin state, the local script has now
been outlawed even though some names
cannot be written in Burmese script.  The local
language can no longer be taught in schools
and Chin people are lured away from their
homeland to relationships and to institutions
which do not allow them to practice their
Christian faith. 

Christianity is especially vulnerable to being
associated with 'otherness' and with outside
influences which threaten the stability and unity
of Myanmar. It is promoted as a product of
outsiders who might use their evil  influence to
do harm. The government paper  New Light of
Myanmar' is dotted with warnings, such as
 beware of unscrupulous persons who will use
Christianity and... denounce such persons who
harbour ill - will.' (951231)  At the same time,
the SLORC has used the Christian faith of
many ethnic groups to encourage them to
Whilst life is not all roses for the people of
Kachin state, the KIA's cease fire agreement
with the SLORC is bringing rewards. The
actual funds for promised projects may be
slow in coming but the Christian people of
Kachin state are being given many
opportunities to express their gratitude whether
they want to or not. At a recent meeting of the
Kachin Baptists Association, Khin Nyunt, first
secretary of the SLORC, cited Christian
doctrine which stresses 'loving kindness,
endurance and forgiving' and exhorted Kachin
nationals 'to constantly consolidate national
unity, based on gentle - mindedness of
Christianity, and to strive for prevalence of
perpetual peace in Kachin state.' His loud
praise of religious freedom at such events
must have a very hollow ring for the Christians
of Karen State. 

The KNU has not yet succumbed to the efforts
of the agreement and the Karen people suffer
daily cruelties. They are taken as porters and
forced labourers on construction projects and
driven from their villages. They have their food
and belongings stolen from them, suffer violent
atrocities like rape and beatings and many
have been killed as a result. The DKBA,
breakaway Karen Buddhist group and armed
SLORC columns, commit many of the
atrocities for and on behalf of the SLORC. 

Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi was prevented
from attending a new year celebration and
merit - making ceremony, on the grounds that
this would be using religion for a political
purpose. Yet SLORC generals make much of
their own merit - making. A camera is always
handy it seems when SLORC generals give
alms and receive blessings.  Promoting
themselves as good Buddhists goes hand in
hand with denigrating other religions, unless of
course, there is something to be gained from
taking a more patronising stance -
maintenance of a cease fire agreement or
another weapons shipment. 

Bangkok Post 960305,950418
The Nation 950915, 951115