The recent Economist article (“Unlikely sanctuary”) on Burmese Muslims living in Yunnan, China inspired me to write about the rampant discrimination Indians, and in particular, Indian Muslims face in Burma.
Kala is a commonly-used Burmese term to describe Indians or Indian-looking people. According to a Burmese dictionary, the term comes from Pali. However, despite the term’s popularity, it is seen as derogatory among the Indian community. (In official contexts, the term kala has been phased out in favor of Burmese equivalents of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, similar to how Yodaya, the Burmese term for Thai is being replaced by Htaing in Burmese). The offensive term kala has become a root word, suffixing or prefixing many Burmese words like “chair” (kala-htaing).
There is no doubt that among the Burmese, Muslims are the least well-received. There is a mistrust among Burmese and especially among Burmese Buddhists, that Muslims are “out to get them” and that they are proselytizing Buddhists by coaxing Buddhists into conversion to Islam through marriage. This is because Islam does not allow marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men while Muslim men are allowed to marry Christians, Jews, and fellow Muslims. Therefore, Buddhist women who want to marry Muslim men must convert. But, in the Burman community, being Buddhist is almost seen as a prerequisite of being Burman.
And in Burma, the majority of Indians are Muslim, and the majority of Muslims are Indian. The remaining Muslims are either converts from Buddhism, Panthay Chinese (Hui), or Rohingya. Also, there is a historical precedent for discrimination against Indians. Throughout the 1930s, Burma was rocked by a series of anti-Indian riots, particularly in Rangoon. These were primarily started by Burman nationalists, who saw the Indians as foreigners and occupiers, minions of the British. I believe to a large extent, this feeling of paranoia still exists in Burma. More recently, in 2001, anti-Muslim riots occurred throughout Burma in Pegu and Mandalay Divisions and in Arakan State. The Asia Times reports:
It was this kind of tension which led to nationwide sectarian riots in 2001. Violence broke out between the two faiths in the towns of Taungoo, Prome, Sittwe, Pegu and Mandalay, as large mobs often led by what appeared to be Buddhist monks attacked Muslim businesses, homes and mosques. The violence resulted in at least nine deaths and considerable destruction of property.
I had a Burmese nanny until I was about six, who had lived during colonial Burma. Those who she thought were stingy, she would call “Chit-ti kala” (Chettiar Indians), referring to the fact that Chettiars had monopolized the money-lending industry and were hated for the role they played in the Burmese economy. Members of my own family dislike Muslims and Indian Muslims in particular, for the reason that they are supposedly ‘troublemakers’, causing mayhem in whatever they do (my paternal grandmother especially dislikes Indian Muslims and believes that the anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon during the late 1960s were somehow caused by Indian Muslims). It is something I’m not proud of, but it reflects how pervasive this mistrust is.
In 2002, the Karen Human Rights Group published the report on Burmese Muslims, entitled “Easy Targets”. Indian Muslims are indeed easy targets. They may be fluent in Burmese, but are not considered Burmese, not in their communities and certainly not by the government. I think the racism and religious discrimination is ridiculous. July 19 (to be held in 2 weeks), Martyr’s Day (Azani nay) commemorates the date of Aung San and six cabinet members were assassinated. Among them was U Razak, an Indian Muslim who was a founding member of the independence movement in Burma.
But, for now, the situation for Burmese Muslims, especially the Indian Muslims who live in Burma remains bleak. It will take more than a democratically-elected government to end these feelings of paranoia and disgust among many Burmese. Laws may reinforce and protect ethnic and religious minorities in Burma, but Burma is still a long way from providing equality to all.
Note: I am not generalizing what all Burmese and Burmese Buddhists feel; I’m sure there are many open-minded people who respect and tolerate others of different faiths and ethnicities.